Writing Fiction in Turbulent Times

I really enjoyed this piece from the Samurai Novelist. I think it sums up why it’s so important to write when life is difficult (personally and politically). I know my writing is at its best when I’m at least a little uncomfortable. I feel things more keenly, and tend to be more aware of little details and moments of significance. What do you think?

Samurai Novelist

Ever since Donald Trump was elected POTUS, politics have been distracting writers from writing. Granted that Trump would make such an awesome fictional character that it’s a shame that he is real, politics  should not distract a fiction writer from the business of creating stories. A time of political turmoil is a great time for the creation of fiction. Some very good literature was written when the world around the author was literally falling apart. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, for example, was inspired by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The book was not written until 1982 and not published until a French translation came out in 1984, but it was very much the child of the Prague Spring.

The authors of great works of literature in turbulent times often had considerable balls. Bertolt Brecht wrote the play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

View original post 1,496 more words

Advertisements

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2017

SC2016_EventBriteHeader01

One of the things I’ve always been leery of as a writer are paid writing competitions. It is hard to find competitions that are vetted by professionals and which offer something in return beyond “a chance” to win–whatever the actual prize may be, recognition, cash, publication. The return I’m talking about is that elusive and invaluable thing writers around the world are desperately seeking: FEEDBACK.

When I first heard about the NYC Midnight Challenges, I was curious. The set up appeals to me, for sure. You receive your assignment and then have 48 hours to complete it, eliminating the sense I always have that to enter a competition you must slave over a piece for weeks or months, hire a professional editor, and finally submit your 50th draft. Hey, if it costs $50 to enter, you want to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward, right?

The appeal of the limited time-frame for the NYC Challenges is that everyone has the same amount of time, limited ability to get outside help, and that you never know what you are going to have to write when you sign up. This evens the playing field, and also presents a different set of challenges from many competitions. Great. But what is even better is the guarantee that everyone will sit at least two challenges (in the Flash Fiction competition, other challenges have different structures) and that you will receive positive and constructive feedback on every round you complete.

So I took the plunge this year. My first ever paid writing competition. How did I do? Well, I’ll let you know when I finish. But I’m thrilled to announce that I have made it to Round 3 after placing first and third, respectively, in my group for the first two challenges. There were nearly 2500 participants for the Flash Fiction challenge this year, which is huge! Rounds 1 and 2 participants competed against 31 other people, each group received an assignment of Genre-Location-Object.

The scores from Rounds 1 and 2 were combined, and the top five participants from each group have moved on to Round 3. We have been assigned new, smaller groups (about 25 each, by my calculations) and each group has a new Genre-Location-Object assignment. Once we finish (yes, I’m supposed to be writing right now) and the results are in, the top four scoring participants from each group will move on to the 4th and final round. Yes, there are cash prizes for the top three in the final round. But by this point I will have completed at least three rounds, with three sets of feedback, and even if I don’t make it to the next round, I feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth. And I would have felt that way after the feedback on Rounds 1 and 2, too. Round 3 is a wonderful bonus!

But in case you’re curious, I thought I’d show you what my assignments, stories, and feedback have been so far just to give you an idea of what these challenges are like. Have a read and let me know what you think!

23513404_2140627316164472_994837433_n

Challenge 1: Genre- Action/Adventure, Location- a high-speed train, Object- a calendar

My submission: “Splitter” by S.C. Jensen

***A young girl travels through layers of time to stop a man whose existence is a threat to time itself. ***

It was wrong. All wrong. Ren spun the outer dial of her splitter, round and round and round and click!

 

“What are you playing with, child?” The passenger next to Ren smiled kindly down at her. He wasn’t supposed to see her. He never saw her. His voice, speaking to her, made her guts spin. She felt it the moment she slipped in beside him. Something was wrong in this lamina.

 

“Time.” Her voice came out like a tiny, broken thing. Ren liked to tell the truth, even when people didn’t understand her. But now she felt cold. Wrong answer.

 

“Oh?” The man studied her face for a moment, then dropped his eyes to the brassy disk in her hands. A glimmer of recognition flickered through the air toward her. The man’s hands trembled the way the hands on a pocket watch do when it needs to be wound, as if he wanted to reach out to her but was too tired.

 

He was going to die; everyone on the train was. Ren spun another dial on the splitter and checked the clock. Thirteen minutes, give or take. The train hurtled them toward their deaths. Round and round and round and click!

 

“A mechanical calendar.” His voice was all wound up. Tense. The splitter’s little internal mechanisms delicately ticked away the seconds. He watched her too closely. “What a fascinating piece of machinery.”

 

Ren didn’t want to think about what would happen once she was gone. Twisting, shrieking metal and twisted, shrieking bodies. It made her want to smother the clockwork heart of the splitter. She tried not to think too much about death. All of those lives, all of those souls fractured and split and sloughing off across infinite layers of time. Each one, spread thinner and thinner and thinner until it seemed they should simply cease to exist.

“Yes.” Ren spun the final dial and felt the splitter’s clockwork heart kick again. Maybe it would still work. Maybe she could still do it. “I collect them.”

 

“That’s an unusual hobby for a young lady,” he said.

 

The man was an anomaly. His iterations fluttered randomly throughout time, disrupting patterns and weakening the thresholds between lamina. It was her job to follow. To stop him. He never knew she was coming. He never saw her.

 

Ren watched a raindrop cut a jagged path across her window, one of many stacked upon one another like striations in ice. She imagined the raindrop’s path stretching out across time, limitless. Just like the train hurtled over the tracks, speeding, inevitably, toward the end, every lamina of time infinite and identical. Death upon death upon death. Ten more minutes.

 

“I’m not that young.”

 

“No.” The word dropped on her like a bucket of ice water. He knew. He knew she knew. Ren slipped the splitter inside her jacket, where it ticked away next to the throbbing, twisting muscle in her chest.

 

It had to happen. Now.

 

“Now!” Inexplicably, she heard the word burst from his mouth as she thought it. A passenger three rows ahead stood and turned.

 

It was him. The man, again.

 

She froze, her body all coiled up like a spring. To her left another passenger stood. Him. Him. Him. Impossible! There should never be more than one of any iteration in a single lamina.

 

Everything was wrong.

 

Ren launched herself over the man beside her—the first iteration—and into the aisle. He lurched behind her, his fingers grasping at the child’s body she wore. A woman screamed and Ren bolted.

 

From the back of the train car, two more dupes came toward her. Ren did something she had never done before. She drew the tiny pistol from the holster hidden in the fabric of her childish, flowered skirt. And she fired. Another flower, a great red one, bloomed on the closest man’s chest. One down.

 

The second dupe grabbed another passenger and backed up slowly. Ren wanted to hesitate; she wished she did. But it didn’t matter. They were all going to die, one way or another. Ren shot the passenger, and then she shot the second dupe. Now everyone was screaming.

 

Ren’s head snapped back and a hand plunged inside her jacket. The man’s thick fingers wrapped in her hair, tearing at her scalp. She twisted in his grasp. Her body was too small to fight him, but if she could just—

 

“Get off her!” The spine of a book cracked on top of the man’s skull and he dropped Ren in surprise. The woman from the seat behind cracked him again. “Get off, you pervert!”

 

Ren scrabbled back and kicked upward, driving her hard-heeled shoe into the man’s knee. His face curled up and he snarled, lunging at her again. Another passenger joined the woman’s assault. The man collapsed under the weight of them but his eyes followed Ren. She pushed herself back down the aisle, eyes locked on the man’s, and reached inside her jacket for the splitter.

 

“Don’t do it!” The man screamed and contorted himself beneath the pile of bodies. “Don’t!”

 

Another dupe crawled over the seats, skirting the mob, panicked eyes fixed on her. She had to act quickly.

 

“All of these people!” The man was crying now. “You’re a monster.”

 

Ren ran her fingers around the dials, not moving them but imagining their infinite possibility. She let the weight of the splitter drag her deeper into herself.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she flipped the switch.

 

Time stretched itself limitlessly. She could see each strata as its own unique layer. She felt them with her mind, corrugated ridges that tickled her brain like the tingle of static.

 

“No!” The man’s voice followed her, along with the final click of the splitter. She peeled herself out of the lamina, imagining she could feel the heat from the blast as the train ripped apart. Tears sprung up and stung her eyes.

 

Everything was right again.

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1499}  Loved this story, and it had great suspense, characters, and action. The decision she has to make has real stakes, especially after a passenger assists her. That “everything was right again” has great irony attached to it.  {1749}  Though I was a bit confused by your story, you created good action in your story.  The theme was unique and very clever.  {1793}  The ending is solid. Rem’s inner-conflict is a good tool to keep the suspense going.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1499}  Not exactly sure why this time was so different, why the man had more power/visibility than he had before. That part confused me a bit. Where did he get these additional powers?  {1749}  I wasn’t certain what Ren’s purpose was on the train.  Was she simply there to make sure the train exploded?  Were the “bad guys” really good guys trying to stop the train from blowing up?  It was a bit confusing. Also, I would suggest using a more common term than “lamina,” since the last thing you want to have the reader have to do is either gloss over it and have to stop and look up its meaning.  {1793}  The story might be improved with a quick explanation by Rem of why she is actually on the train. She might want to catch the dupe, and it might be revealed that she is the only one intending to crash the train, and trying to thwart any would-be heroes. A quick description, even a false one, might help to deepen the sense of conflict.

23513432_2140626616164542_458016363_n

Challenge 2: Genre – Fairy Tale, Location – a hot tub, Object – a pair of gloves

My submission: “Making Suds” by S.C. Jensen

***A soap-makers’ daughter takes on the family business when her parents become enchanted by a new baby. But she has some competition from a local river spirit, the Nixe.***

Once upon a time, when stories flowed like rivers and rivers were never what they seemed, there was a girl. Her name was Suds. It wasn’t her real name, but her parents were soap-makers and they thought themselves very clever.

 

They were also very sad. Suds’ parents longed for another child. In fact, the soap-makers whispered that they were cursed.

 

Suds knew that was nonsense. But that was the way of grown-ups, she thought, always wishing for more and forgetting what they’ve got.

 

 

Then, when Suds was twelve years old, her mother gave birth to a baby boy. Suds loved her brother. Everyone was very happy.

 

 

With her parents so distracted, Suds enjoyed her freedom. She roamed the woods outside their village, picked berries, snared rabbits, chased pheasants, and never once thought about making soap.

 

The weeks turned into months, and her parents’ infatuation with the new baby grew. The family needed money. But neither the mother nor the father could bear to leave the boy, not for a moment.

 

“Suds, we need you to go down to the river today,” her mother said one morning. She rocked the baby boy and cooed.

 

“For what?” Suds asked.

 

“You must leach the lye and make the soap,” her father explained. “Or soon we will starve.”

 

“Alone?”

 

“Your brother needs us,” her parents said. “We need you. Please go to the river today.”
Suds collected her tools and glared at the soap-makers.

 

“Don’t forget your gloves,” her mother said, looking at the baby. “And don’t talk to the Nixe.”

 

Down at the river, Suds built up a fire. She hauled the great iron tub up over the coals, filled it with water, and waited for the water to boil.

 

All the while, a creature watched her from the bank. Suds never looked directly at it. If she did, it was sure to start talking to her. River spirits loved to talk to children, especially children who were not with their parents. The thing crept closer. It smelled of rotting fish.

 

“What are you doing, child?”

 

Suds ignored the Nixe and stirred the water in the tub. She hummed quietly to herself and waited for the water to boil.

 

“Where are the grown ones, girl?”

 

Suds ignored the Nixe and watched the bubbles begin to rise from the bottom of the iron tub. She hummed quietly to herself and shovelled some ashes into the boiling water.

 

“Let me try, will you?”

 

At this, Suds looked up. The Nixe cocked its head. Milk-white eyes rolled in sockets of water-logged flesh. The fish smell was much worse up close. Suds knew better than to make a deal with a river spirit. But she longed to go exploring in the forest.

 

So Suds showed the Nixe how to keep the fire hot, boil the water, scoop the ashes, and skim the lye. And, most importantly, she showed the creature how to protect its delicate skin from burning with the heavy leather gloves. Soon, the creature was doing all the work for her.

 

“Delightful!” The spirit’s black tongue flashed out between its lips and it tugged at the gloves. “But this soap-making is giving me an appetite. Let us make a deal. I will do your work for you if you bring me something to eat.”

 

“I can fish,” Suds replied warily.

 

“I hate fish. All I eat is fish. Cold and slimy and flip-flopping,” the creature said. “No. Bring me a basket of berries from the forest and I will make fifty bars of soap.”

 

Fifty bars of soap was twice as many as Suds could make in a day. It was a deal worth taking. So she went off to gather berries and enjoy a day in the forest.

 

When she returned with the berries, the Nixe bared its sharp teeth in a smile. It gobbled the berries up, presented the pile of soaps, and leapt into the river with a splash. Suds carried the soaps home to her parents.

 

The soap-makers were thrilled. They hugged Suds and praised her and wondered how they had been blessed with such a wonderful daughter. Suds basked in their love and privately vowed to make a deal with the river spirit again tomorrow.

 

“I will make one hundred bars of soap for you,” the Nixe said the next morning. “If you bring three plump, juicy rabbits to fill my belly.”

 

Suds knew her snares were full and she looked forward to another day in the woods. She took that bargain, too. And when she returned, the Nixe had all of her soaps prepared. Again, she returned a hero to her parents. The next day the price was six pheasants. Suds thought herself very lucky.

 

But on the fourth day, the Nixe was harder to please.

 

“I am very, very hungry,” the river spirit said. “Today I need something more.”

 

“What is your price?” asked Suds.

 

“I will make your soaps for the rest of your life,” the Nixe fluttered its gills and sniffed. “But you must bring me the baby.”

 

“That,” said Suds, “is something I will not do.”

 

“You will,” said the Nixe. “Or I will have you instead. I am very, very hungry.”

 

“No!” Suds lunged at the Nixe, but it was a slippery creature and much wilier than the girl. The river spirit slipped right out of Suds arms and it shoved her into the hot tub of lye.

 

The Nixe knew just what to do. It pulled on the protective gloves, and stirred the pot. When Suds’ bones had dissolved, it made the broth into soap.

 

Then, the river spirit drew upon its glamour. It turned itself into a girl, very like Suds, but for the wet hem of its dress and the rumbling of its stomach. And it brought the bars of soap to the grateful mother and father.

 

And everyone lived happily ever after. Except, of course, the soap-makers.

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1651}  This has all of the elements of a classic fairytale. We gets a strong sense of Suds and that she would rather play in the forest than make soaps.  {1597}  I really enjoyed the classic fairy tale structure you used, complete with negligent parents and children who just want to wander in the woods. The kind of Faustian deal with the Nixe was fun to read about. The ending is dark but satisfying.  {1739}  In the beginning, Suds seems to be clever and her deals are basically made in the hopes of her parents’ adoration. The anticipation built as we work toward the payoff is well paced.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1651}  If a creature told you that it was going to eat you, why would you lunge for it? Instinctually, it does not make sense. I also didn’t understand the ending; why did the soapmakers not live happily ever after? For all they know, they still have their two children and all the soaps they can sell.  {1597}  One flag that was raised for me is that since the parents are aware of the Nixe and warn her not to speak to it, they would probably be suspicious when she comes home with 50 perfect soaps on her first day. It seems strange they wouldn’t have suspected and put a stop to it. Also, I wasn’t sure I believed Suds would be reluctant to sacrifice her baby brother. I’m not sure if you need that last line.  {1739}  If the Nixe has the ability to ‘glamour’ why hasn’t it done this already and worked its way into a home? Why would a river sprite be able to live in disguise as a human? Suds doesn’t display any love for her brother. Why wouldn’t she agree to hand him over?

NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” by S.C. Jensen PART 3

23222902_2135986889961848_997101601_oIn an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the NaNoWriMo course this year, I’ve decided to post my progress here once or twice a week. No, I don’t mean I’ll tell you whether or not I met my word count goals every day. I mean I’m going to share my actual NaNo draft with you in all its ugly, unfinished glory! This is Part 3 of my progress.

I figure NaNoWriMo is a lot like writing a serialized novel; you have a rigorous pace to keep and no time to go back and change things or fuss around with word choices. This is a first draft habit I struggle with and really need to improve upon. So I’m committing to writing 50K words this month, and sharing with you as I go. I hope you will read along, toss me the occasional word of encouragement, and inspire me with ideas for what should happen next. The working title for this piece is “The Hunger” and it is a supernatural thriller about a family canoe trip that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Enjoy!

Click here for Part 1: Chapters 1-3

Click here for Part 2: Chapters 4-8

Chapter Nine

“Well,” Frank said. He stood before the boarded up entrance of the tunnel and scratched his head. “I guess we can’t argue with our own eyes.”

Margaret thought that was rich after he’d spent forty-five minutes arguing with Margaret and Robert about what they’d seen with their eyes. The entrance to the mine wasn’t visible from their campsite. Frank had been convinced that his map was right and Margaret and Robert were having some kind of joint hallucination. Brian was convinced they were trying to play a joke on the rest of the group. It was Ellie who said, “Let’s go check it out, then.”

The trip through the forest toward the bottom of the cliff went pretty well. Margaret felt the oppressiveness of the trees around them, like an endless pressure. But in reality, the trees grew with quite a bit of distance between them and the underbrush was minimal. The dry crunch of pine needles below their feet was the only sound as the group hiked on in silence.

The silence itself was unsettling. Not that Margaret wanted to listen to a bunch of know-it-all chatter from the Swains. But without their voices to distract her, Margaret became very aware of the actual silence. The forest was too quiet. There were no birds. No leaves rustling. Just the dead crunch of pine needles under their feet. It was unnatural.

That feeling didn’t go away once they stood in front of the mine entrance. The Swains didn’t seem to notice. But Ellie and Mom shifted from foot to foot and scanned the trees the same way Margaret was. Robert stood stiffly next to her.

“Fascinating!” Gerald walked around the entrance to the mine, kicking at ancient debris with his toes. “Even if this isn’t Drake Mine, it definitely looks like someone was mining here. What is it they were looking for around here?”

“Copper, mostly,” Frank answered. “But Drake Mine is the only one legally registered in the area. It’s possible this is an offshoot passage from one of the main drilling chambers, though. Like and emergency exit.”

“When do we go in?” Brian’s eyes glinted with excitement.

“Shouldn’t we check up lake to see if there’s another main entrance?” Margaret asked. She wasn’t keen on the idea of them exploring the mine at all. Further exploration would at least delay the inevitable. Maybe they’d get weathered out before anyone went underground. She didn’t know why, but the idea of anyone going inside the abandoned mine bothered her worse than any of it. It just felt wrong, like an intrusion.

Hell, even Charles Thomas hadn’t wanted to go near the mine.

“Well it’s definitely Drake,” Frank said. He picked up picked up an old, gray board stamped with black letters: DRAKE. “One shaft is much like the others. We could go in here.”

“Unless you wanted to check for bones,” Brian joked. “With tooth marks.”

Mom’s eyes focussed on the boarded up entrance, drawn to the darkness beyond. “Bill Williams said they burned the bodies,”

“’Bill Williams’ said whatever he thought he could say to get a rise out of you girls,” Brian said, carefully including Robert in his pointed gaze.

“Well I, for one, would love to go check it out.” Gerald proudly slapped Frank on the back. “Let’s have a look at the old profession, shall we?”

“We can discuss our options back at camp,” Frank said. “I’m starving.”

“Just as long as I’m not on the menu, bro.”

“Not yet,” Robert said. “But I suppose if we were desperate enough…”

“Don’t get his hopes up, Bobby,” Ellie said. “Things will have to be more than desperate before anyone eats Brian.”

“Fuck off,” Brian said.

But they followed Frank’s advice and ended up back at the camp. Frank was full of enthusiasm for the next few days’ exploration.

“We’ll go into the first shaft initially. If this is the main Drake shaft we’ll have lots to explore,” he said. “If not, we’ll get in a little ways and reassess.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Margaret said.

“It is easy,” Frank said. “Why wouldn’t it be?“

“You’re a few decades off the rescue mission,” Ellie said. “For one thing.”

“Look, Drake Mine is nothing to be afraid of,” Frank said. “Yes, there is some awful history. But as Dad can tell you, history doesn’t make the place.”

“It’s true,” Gerald said. “There are lots of places in Canadian history with horrific pasts.”

“And, what,” Ellie asled. “We just forget about it now? I’m sure that’s exactly what our ancestors wanted.”

“Your ancestors sold the land to government officials,” Frank said. “They knew full well what they were doing.”

“Have fun down there, then,” Robert said. “But I’m not going in and I’m not supporting this foolishness.”

‘Surprise, surprise,” Brian said. “Bobby Is afraid.”

“Bobby’s not a fucking moron,” Ellie snapped.

“Ellie, please.” Mom’ had her warning voice on again.

“Look, you guys do what you want tomorrow,” Margaret said in an attempt to keep the peace. “I’d like to see if we can find the main shaft further up the lake. Anyone want to come?”

“You can’t make it all the way up there and back in a day,” Frank said. But he sounded somewhat appeased by Margaret’s admitting his map might still be right.

“Unloaded, with three paddlers, we should be able to do eight kilometers an hour,” Margaret said. “As long as the weather holds. It’s only 25 kilometres to the mine. We’ll be able to check it out and be back before supper.”

Brian scoffed as if he didn’t believe it. Margaret thought if she paddled like Brian did she wouldn’t believe it either. But she knew they could make it easily, as long as the winds stayed like they had this morning. And so far the sky was clear, with no hint of the winds that had tormented them the night before.

“I’m game,” Robert said.

“You okay with that, Mom?” Ellie asked.

“Sure,” Mom replied. “I’ll hold down the fort here. These fools still need someone to make lunch, I guess.”

“Come on, Grace,” Frank said disapprovingly. “You know I want you to come with us.”

“Really, dear,” Mom said. “I’d rather not. I thought I might when we talked about it in town, but after seeing the thing I really have no interest in going in there. I’ll take lunch duty.”

“It’s settled then,” Gerald said. “Now when’s this food going to be ready? I’ll make us some drinks.”

Gerald seemed to come with an endless supply of whisky wherever he went. The man never appeared to be drunk, but he also never stopped drinking, so who knew. He rustled off into his tent to find whatever he needed to play bartender.

“You guys really don’t want to explore the mine?” Brian asked. He seemed genuinely baffled. “I’ve got my med kit and we brought climbing gear. It’s totally safe. Grace?”

“Who’s going to make your grilled cheese sandwiches if I get stuck under a rock?”

“Alright folks, drinks up.” Gerald came out of his tent shaking a novelty rugged-style martini shaker with a stack of stainless steel cups in his left hand. “Tomorrow is a big day.”

Robert laughed. As much as he hated the Swains, Robert had a soft spot for Gerald’s old lush persona. He stared into the cup Gerald offered him. “What the hell is this? A cherry?”

“You can’t have a proper Manhattan without a cherry,” Gerald winked. “Of course, to be a proper Manhattan I’d have to stir them. But I’m a practical man.”

“Says the man who brought vermouth and bitters on a canoe expedition,” Mom laughed.

Margaret sipped her cocktail and bit into the bright red marichino cherry. “How civilized,” she said.

 

 

Chapter Ten

Maybe it was the Manhattans—she’d had four—but Maragaret slept better that night. It helped that Brian stayed in his own tent and didn’t bother with the screaming and the shaking. But overall, Margaret felt better, better about everything.

The Swains would do their urban explorer thing; Brian would probably videotape the whole thing and have it uploaded on some website within moments of getting back to a wifi signal. Mom was going to stay back and tend camp. And Ellie, Robert, and she could escape, even if it was just for an afternoon.

She felt good.

When Robert stumbled into the tent a few hours afterward, she rolled over and pressed her ass against his crotch. Robert grunted appreciatively, slid a hand into her fleece pyjama pants, and slipped them down around her hips. Ellie snored on the other side of the tent.

Maybe this trip wouldn’t be so bad.

Even Margaret could admit that her reservations about coming to Drake Mine had never been based on anything concrete. For some reason, when Frank brought the idea up a few weeks ago, Margaret reacted with the same gut-wrenching refusal that she felt for anything Frank suggested. No, no, no, hell no. Maybe that was all it was.

At the time it had felt like more. It had felt like fear. But she had no reason to be afraid. She’d heard the history—they learned it in sixth grade Social Studies—but it had never really resonated with her. When they were growing up, Margaret and Ellie spent most of their free hours in the bush. Her sister gave her a hard time for taking local myths too seriously, but Margaret knew some of the stories held more weight than others.

Her concerns about Drake Mine were more practical than residual school-girl nerves about spirits. She was worried that Frank would get hurt. Or worse. And that, for all that she hated the man sometimes, her mother would be alone again.

Frank wasn’t so bad, when she really thought about it.

A few hours after Robert had finished, Margaret woke again. She shifted out of the cold, wet spot she lay in and pulled up her pyjamas. The night was quiet. The only sound was the wind sighing through the trees, obviously much more content with their presence than the first night.

Brian probably had too much to drink and passed out before he could continue the prank. Good, Margaret thought, because if he tried it tonight Ellie probably would beat him with the paddle. Then they’d have to hide the body. Margaret giggled to herself.

It was strange, she thought as she drifted off again, how much the trees sounded like whispers. Like voices chattering around the tent. She wasn’t supposed to acknowledge any ‘superstitious nonsense’ when they were out in the wild, Ellie and she both knew how easily fear could take hold and make you think the strangest things were true. But tonight, Margaret didn’t feel afraid. She listened to the trees whispering to one another and wondered, vaguely, if they were talking about them. The motley crew that had turned up to explore this mine that shouldn’t even be here.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

They got an early start in the morning. Margaret wanted to take advantage of the same calm they’d had yesterday morning. She wanted to make it up to the mine and back in record time, just to drive home the point to Frank about what shitty paddlers he and his brother were. She wasn’t sure why, but she’d woken up feeling antagonistic again.

Luckily, neither Ellie nor Robert seemed very enthusiastic about lingering at breakfast. They both powered through their coffees, mostly ignored the Swain’s explorer talk, packed some snacks, and were ready to go.

“You sure you don’t want to come, Mom?” Ellie asked as they loaded up the canoe with their day packs and water bottles. “We could squeeze you in here.”

“Thanks, Ellie,” Mom said. “I know. But my knees aren’t too thrilled with the idea of more paddling. I’m looking forward to a day by the campfire with my book, actually. I’m not as young as I once was.”

“But you’re as young now as you’ll ever be,” Robert chimed in.

“What did I tell you about country music?” Ellie tossed a paddle at him. “You want to go swimming today?”

“I’ll make the curried chicken for supper tonight,” Mom said. “I’m sure you’ll all have an appetite.”

“Sounds good, Ms. Churchill,” Robert climbed into the canoe. “Don’t let those silly Swains lure you into the underground.”

“Not much chance of that,” Mom said. “I don’t fancy myself a canary, thank you.”

“See you soon, Mom.” Margaret said from the bow. “Love you.”

“Love you too, girls,” Mom said. “And you, Bobby. Have fun out there!”

###

That morning on the lake was a totally different experience from the morning before. The early morning mists still curled around the trees on the shore, and the gentle breaths of wind still stirred them across the lake. But the day felt much less ominous that yesterday, Margaret thought.

It seemed everyone was on the same page about showing up the Swains paddling skills, because Robert and Ellie drove them forward with record speeds. So much that Margaret struggled to keep up with their pace and find her place in the rhythm of the strokes.

The fat white canoe cut through the water like a schooner, skimming across the top of the lake as if they were weightless. Margaret revelled in the feeling of real paddling. This was what she missed. This is what she longed for when she was out in the bush.

Margaret watched the water break and spray off the front of the canoe. The two waves the slid next to the hull churned up the water right where she dug her paddle in. In that moment she felt one with Reyer Lake, like their presence had a purpose beyond fulfilling some macho dream of Frank Swains.

“Do you think we’ll find anything at the end of the lake?” Ellie wondered, slightly breathless from the rigorous pace. “What are the chances that there are two entrances to the same mine?”

“Pretty good, actually,” Robert said. “I didn’t want to say anything to the all-knowing Swains. But my Gramps mentioned lots of little ins and outs in the area. Some of these old mines are huge, it would be ridiculous to only have one entrance or exit.”

“So why did the Swine have such a hard time wrapping his head around the idea?”

“Well, first of all, because I am the one who told him,” Margaret said. “And I’m known to be ‘unreliable’ and ‘skittish.’”

“Mostly that,” Robert said. “Plus, for all Frank wants to be the expert, the mining industry today is very different from back in Gramps’ day. Those were the Wild West years. Wild north, I guess.”

“Bascically Frank is a prejudiced old wannabe,” Ellie said. “Yeah. Okay, I’ll buy that.”

They kept paddling without talking for most of the morning, just enjoying the calm waters and the warmth of the sunshine. As the heat of the day burned off the fog, the trees looked quite beautiful to Margaret. The evergreens were brilliant in their various shades of blue and green. And the few deciduous trees that retained their leaves after the first frost offered a shot of yellow and orange to brighten up the landscape that matched the neon-coloured lichen that seemed to cover every rock that inched toward the water.

Margaret didn’t know what it was, but there was something that was just right about the north. It had that fresh, unlived-in feel that she had never experienced anywhere else—not that she’d been so many places. But Margaret had a feeling that if all the people on earth just evaporated someday, that in a few years the planet would look a lot more like this—like the north and its trees and its lichen and the cool breeze that braced itself across the lake. The cool breeze that had a hint of winter in its breath.

“It’s getting cold,” Ellie said.

“Yeah,” Margaret replied. “Definitely turning over to winter at this point. I hope we don’t see any snow in the next couple of days.”

“Maybe being able to explore a little closer to the mainland will get us off Reyer more quickly,” Robert said from the back of the boat. “I wouldn’t be sad if we hit the road before temperatures drop below zero.”

“End of the line up there,” Margaret said. “You see anything that screams ‘mineshaft’ up ahead?”

“Hard to say,” Ellie said. “Let’s get out and walk around anyway. My knees are getting stiff.”

They pulled up to the far shore just after noon, dragged the canoe out of the water, and Margaret unpacked some of the sandwiches she’d made that morning. Neither she nor Ellie mentioned it when Robert tied the canoe to a thick tree and double checked the knot despite the fact that the air was dead calm. Not a ripple touched the surface of the lake right now. This was one of those things they agreed not to talk about.

Margaret had a closer look at the map and scanned the rocky hillside that crept up away from the waters of Reyer. The mine looked to be just up from the little inlet to her left, not quite as far up as the one near their campsite was. From their picnic spot, she couldn’t see anything like the great gaping hole she was expecting to see. The gray rocks just piled up behind her, sparse trees jutted up between them at random intervals, giving the landscape a somewhat bare and desolate look.

When they had finished their sandwiches, Margaret, Ellie, and Robert began to pick their way up the hillside toward where the minesite should be. While they didn’t see anything promising right off the bat, Margaret did notice some bits of rusted metal here and there between the stones at her feet that hinted they must be in the right area.

After they had climbed a good ways up the hill, Robert stopped and put his hand up to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. In the bright afternoon light, the gray of the rocks became a pale wall that obscured their path and made Margaret’s eyes ache.

“What’s that?” Robert said. “Looks like some old boards behind that little patch of spruce trees.”

He was right. There behind the trees was a pile of boards as gray and bleached as the stones around it. They were placed haphazardly across a narrow hole in the cliff face. Thin rusty streaks bled into the wood grain from where the boards had been nailed to one another decades ago. The nails themselves had rotted through, and left the boards dangling like a makeshift door, rather than a barrier.

“It looks so old,” Ellie said.

Margaret felt a chill creep up her spine. It did look old. And it should. Drake Mine was deactivated and abandoned almost eighty years ago. It was a wonder there was anything left of the mine site at all with the kind of harsh weather Reyer Lake must see every spring and winter. This was definitely the entrance to Drake Mine.

And it looked much older than the entrance near their campsite.

Robert approached the shaft and pulled a Maglite out of his jacket. He shone the beam of the flashlight into the darkness beyond the boards, but stayed well back from the entrance. Margaret was relieved at that. She didn’t like the ideas of the network of tunnels beneath their feet. She imagined it like an ant farm that might collapse under them at any moment. The entrance seemed particularly vulnerable to falling into itself.

“Goes pretty much straight down, I think,” Robert said. “I can’t see anything past the first couple of metres.”

“Well we don’t really need to check it out that closely,” Margaret said. “We just wanted to see if it was here, right?”

Robert stepped away from the shaft gratefully. He looked around the area. “See that clearing over there?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Ellie said. “The flat spot?”

“I think that’s where the lodgings were,” Robert said. “Gramps said there was a long house of some kind that the miners slept in when they weren’t working.”

“You can see part of the old foundation on the left,” Margaret said. Ancient logs had been secured to the rocks with long iron spikes. Most of the logs had rotted away, but there was a hint of them along the hillside, bits of disintegrated wood and rusty leeching on the rocks.

“I didn’t notice anything like this around the campsite,” Ellie said.

“I guess they didn’t stay there overnight,” Robert said. “Maybe it was just an emergency exit?”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Margaret said. There was something about seeing the original Drake Mine site that had her thinking. “Did you look inside the other shaft? Back at camp?”

“Naw, I let old Frank do the inspecting.”

“I’ll be curious what the find in that one,” Margaret said.

Ellie raised an eyebrow at her. “Not curious enough to go check it out yourself, I suppose.”

“Hell no,” Margaret laughed. “But I think that’s a newer site. I wonder if someone has been digging illegally up there.”

“Maybe that’s why Frank actually brought us up here?”

“There gold in them thar hills!” Robert shouted and ran back down the path toward the shore. Ellie laughed and followed him.

Margaret scanned the mine site one more time, committing it to memory. There was something here that she needed to remember. She just couldn’t think of what.

Eventually she, too, climbed down the rocks. Margaret didn’t like the feeling of having Drake Mine at her back. Her ankle was still sore from where she’d twisted it the day before, so she didn’t run. But she hopped as quickly as she could down the hillside, following Robert and Ellie’s laughter like a beacon.

Robert already had the canoe in the water when she got to the bottom. Ellie tossed their bags into the boat and stood waiting for Margaret to get there.

“After you, sister dearest!”

“You don’t want to take the bow this time, Ellie?”

Ellie looked horrified. “Then I’d actually have to paddle!”

Margaret rolled her eyes and hopped into the canoe. Ellie followed her, settling on the middle of the boat. Robert pushed them out onto the open water and they were on their way.

The winds seemed to favour them on their way back to camp. Still barely more than a gentle breeze most of the time, but is guided them ever so insistently back down the lake so that each stoke of the paddle seemed to do the work of two.

“I can’t wait for your mom’s chicken curry,” Robert said. “What did we ever do without dehydrators?”

“Your ancestors are ashamed, Robert.”

“What?”

But when they pulled up to camp, Mom wasn’t there. Neither was anyone else. The breakfast dishes were stacked but not washed, next to the campfire. The campfire itself was cold.

“Maybe she went up to supervise after all?”

“I’m starving,” Ellie said. “Can we eat and then socialize? Please?”

“You get the fire going and I can be convinced of anything. My hands are freezing.”

“The wind is picking up again,” Robert said. “Good thing we left when we did or we might have sailed right past and landed on Bill Williams’ doorstep.”

“I’d prefer his company to the Swine brothers,” Ellie said, bitterly.

The rehydrated a shrink wrapped package of chicken meat and sauce and some instant rice. Margaret put on some extra water for tea. “What the hell is taking them so long?”

“Cover the pot,” Ellie said. “We should go check on them before it gets dark.”

“Ugh. Fine. I guess we can reheat the tea, too.”

They made their way up the hill toward the mine entrance. As the approached the hole in the cliff, twilight was falling around them. The wooden boards that had been blocking up the entrance were pulled aside and stacked neatly on the ground, making the door look like a great yawning mouth in the rock. It was pitch black inside. There was no sign of Mom or the Swains.

Margaret felt her anxiety kicking in again. “Robert, shine that light in there. Where the hell are they?”

“Hello?” Ellie called into the pitch while Robert fumbled for his Maglite. “Supper is ready!”

Her own voice echoed back at the group, but no one replied. Finally Robert got his flashlight out and shone the beam into the hole. A small room was illuminated in the yellow light of his flashlight. But there didn’t seem to be any tunnel leading further into the cliff. No shaft plunging underground. Just a small room, with a silver pot, a cook stove, and a sleeping bag.

“What the fuck?”

“Are the other canoes still here?” Ellie asked. “Are they fucking with us again?”

“I’m going to be so pissed if Mom is in on this too,” Margaret said. “This is beyond childish.”

“I’m going to drink my damned tea and go to bed,” Ellie said. “Those jerks can freeze out here playing their games for all I care.”

Margaret knew she wasn’t allowed to say anything without breaking her pact with Ellie. But she couldn’t help but wonder who had been sleeping in the hole. And how long it had been since they were at home.

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

They finished their tea and washed up the supper dishes as the sun settled in behind the trees. Long shadows stretched down the hill toward them, black fingers that seemed to be reaching past them to touch the icy black waters of Reyer Lake. The loons were at it again, ululating laugher swelling and bouncing off the trees and rocks so that it was impossible to tell what was real and what was an echo. Margaret felt as if she were slowly going insane with the loons’ mad laughter.

But there were no other noises in the forest around them. No human laugher signalling a joke gone too far. The red canoes were where they had left them after the rescue mission the other day. Margaret knew they had to be here somewhere. She wondered if Brian would have planned this prank far enough in advance to have packed an extra tent for them to sleep in. But that seemed extreme.

It was going to be cold that night. She hoped against hope that there was a mineshaft they had missed behind the door in the cliff. Some other place that Mom and the Swains could be that would make sense. At and least underground they would be a little bit warmer. They could even make a fire.

Or maybe Bill Williams had swung by in a motor boat and taken them back to Moose Lips Lodge for drinks and conversation. That would be okay, too.

Either way, why hadn’t Mom left a note?

“Let’s get some sleep,” Robert said. The light from the campfire flickered over his face, casting an orange glow on against his umber complexion. The shadows under his eyes had deepened significantly over the course of the day. “We’ll find where they’re hiding in the morning.”

“This game is ridiculous,” Ellie said. “What could they possibly have to gain by trying to scare us?”

“Who knows,” Margaret said. “Not like Brian has ever needed a reason to torment us. It was his favourite thing to do, growing up.”

“This is extreme,” Ellie said. “Even for him.”

Robert spread the coals out so they would cool off more quickly. They stayed just long enough to be sure no other branches were going to flare up. Then Robert said,” Come on. Time for bed.”

The campsite was eerily quiet without the shuffling noises from the neighbouring tents. Margaret would have given anything to hear her mother setting in next to Frank, the hushed sound of their voices as he educated her about some insignificant detail. Her polite listening noises as she snuggled into her bag and enjoyed the company of a man who didn’t beat her and scream abuses and threaten her children. Even if he was an asshole, Frank wasn’t that bad.

Brian wasn’t either. This was utterly bizarre behaviour from both of them. And why would Mom and Gerald go along with it? There was no other explanation, though. Unless they’d find another way into the mine and couldn’t get back out again. The thought gave Margaret chills.

“I hope they aren’t trapped somewhere,” Ellie said, as she wrapped herself in her own blanked, echoing Margaret’s feelings. “It’s going to be cold tonight.”

“Try to sleep,” Robert said. “Both of you. We’ll look tomorrow. They’ll be alright for one night.”

“Until we find them,” Ellie said. “And I kill them.”

“That’s the spirit,” Robert said.

Then they were quiet. Margaret listened to the sound of Robert and Ellie breathing. She tried her time her own breaths to land seamlessly between theirs, creating a soft rhythm of exhalations. It was a calming trick she had developed as a child and she and Ellie were often curled together in her bed, under the blanket, waiting for the yelling to stop. Eventually, she always managed to sleep.

And it worked this night, too. So softly that she didn’t realize it was happening, sleep crept up and claimed Margaret. At least, she thought it had. Her body felt leaden and her thoughts were fuzzy, like she was thinking through cotton balls. No. That didn’t make any sense. But she hovered there on the edge of sleep, not quite in this world and not quiet dreaming. She was warm between the bodies of Ellie and Robert. Comfortable.

Then she heard the footsteps.

Margaret tried to sit up, but felt like there was something sitting on her chest, pinning her to the air mattress. She couldn’t move. Her eyes roamed around, trying to catch some shadow or some flash of movement from outside. But it was too dark. She could see nothing. All she could hear was the breathing of Ellie and Robert, and the shuffling footsteps outside their tent.

Panic gripped Margaret. Why couldn’t she move? Was that Brian outside again? Was he going to start shaking the tent?

Ragged breathing from outside joined the chorus that Margaret had tried so hard to create. Ragged breath and shuffling steps, coming closer. Margaret’s heart hammered so hard in her chest, she thought it would wake the others.

But they didn’t wake. They didn’t seem to hear anything going on outside.

Sleep paralysis, Margarget thought. Maybe she was dreaming. She had heard of people suffering from sleep paralysis, a strange dream state where you think you are awake but you can’t move. The stuff of nightmares.

Ellie shot upright suddenly, eyes wide. She heard it, too, Margaret thought. It didn’t relieve her. Ellie said, “Where are the dogs?”

“What dogs?” Robert asked sleepily. Then Margaret could move again. She could hear nothing from outside the tent.

“The dogs are gone,” Ellie said.

“I don’t like them either,” Robert said. “But don’t call them names until we’re sure they aren’t lost somewhere.”

“Hmm,” Ellie grunted, and fell back down to sleep. She rolled over and instantly started snoring. Robert fell back asleep quickly, too. Margaret’s heart slowly went back to normal as she listened to the wind in the trees outside. There were no more footsteps. No more ragged breathing.

I must have been dreaming, Margaret thought. She pressed herself into Robert, felt his chest rise and fall against her back, and closed her eyes.

The trees sighed around them, but Margaret didn’t hear any voices, this time. She wondered, just before she fell asleep, if perhaps she was losing her mind.

 

Chapter Thirteen

“I had the strangest dreams last night,” Ellie said when they sat around the campfire the next morning. It was early, yet. The sun was just starting to peak out from between the trees with a soft pink glow. Their breath smoked around their faces as they sipped their coffee. There had been a frost that night.

“About dogs,” Margaret said. Ellie looked at her strangely. “You were talking in your sleep.”

“Yes,” Ellie said. She stared at the flames. “I had forgotten that part.”

“Who’s up for oatmeal?” Robert asked, stirring a steaming pot of thick gray gruel in a stainless steel pot. “Breakfast of champions.”

“Yeah, dish me up,” Margaret said. “I’m just going to go make some room.”

“Classy,” Ellie said and tossed her the toiletries bag.

“Your coffee is a little too good at its job,” Margaret said. “I shouldn’t have had the third cup.”

“Three cups?” Robert laughed. “You’ll be shitting through the eye of a needle.”

“Thanks for the moral support.”

Margaret stretched and made her way into the woods behind their campsite. They’d been using a spot not too far from the edge of the exposed rocks. No one wanted to admit it, but going too far into the pines, even if it was for the purpose of privacy, wasn’t going to happen. There were some things that just didn’t rate too high on the priority list when you were out in the bush and things started getting strange.

Margaret crouched behind a fallen tree and put a hand on one of the outstretched branches for balance. The bark had fallen away in large chunks, revealing smooth, yellowing worm-eaten wood beneath. Spots that had been exposed longer than others were gray. The shadowed side was thick with early winter frost, but the morning sun was quickly burning off the crystals and leaving droplets behind. Except…

“Guys!” she shouted, pulling up her pants and spinning around to search the trees behind her. “Come quick!”

“I really don’t need to see it,” Ellie called back.

But Robert heard the urgency in her voice. “What is it?”

Margaret stared at the log she had been holding on to. Her handprint was just starting to fade as the sun burned up the layer of frost on the dark side. And beside it, there was another print. Longer, thinner fingers had wrapped over the log in the moments before she had come back here. Margaret scanned the ground around her.

“There are footprints in the frost,” she said. Robert stood by the tents searching the ground, but the sun had already kissed away the evidence. “There was a handprint on the log next to mine.”

Her heart sank as she looked at the log. It was covered in dew now, the imprint had dissolved back into the smooth bark as if it had never been there. Maybe it never had.

“Are you sure?” Robert said. “Maybe they were your own prints.”

“No.” Margaret shook her head emphatically and kept her eye on the trees. Someone was definitely out there. “They couldn’t have been mine. The handprint was too big, and It was pointed the wrong way. And the footprints…”

“Are nowhere to be found” Ellie said. Her eyes tightened at the corners. Margaret knew she was breaching their contract by speaking of this. But this wasn’t just her imagination. She had seen the prints. “They were probably yours, Maggie.”

But she had to say something. If she didn’t tell someone she was going to go insane thinking about it. Wondering. No. It hadn’t been her imagination. “Whoever made them was barefoot,” Margaret said.

###

After they had finished breakfast, Robert packed day bags for each of them. Ellie cleaned up the coffee and oatmeal dishes. Margaret just stared into the fire. Nobody spoke. She knew it sounded crazy. She knew she had a history of thinking and saying crazy things. But Ellie and Robert had always been the ones who believed her, no matter what.

Now they just seemed angry. Silently refusing to acknowledge what she had told them. Angry that she had said words like that out lout and allowed the fear to creep into them as well.

That was what the pact was all about. When you’re out in the wild, sometimes you get scared. Sometimes you think you see things and hear things. In the city, you can talk about it and laugh it off and reassure one another that there is nothing the matter. Out here, in the bush, it didn’t work like that.

Fear was contagious out here. The forest plays tricks on you. It tries to get you to believe your own fears, believe in the things your imagination twists out of rocks and shadows and long, finger-like branches. And when you spoke about the out loud, out here, they didn’t go away. Speaking about them made them real. Not just for yourself. It became real for everyone else, too.

She shouldn’t have broken the pact. Now Ellie and Robert had that sinking feeling in their stomachs as well. That feeling like they were at the top of the rollercoaster, just hovering on the edge of the drop. But there was no giggling carnie at the end of this ride, no safe delivery home. There was just the plunge into darkness, into the wild, where it was just going to get worse and worse.

Margaret knew. This was how it always started. And how, before she and Ellie had come up with the pact, she and her sister had almost ended up killing one another trying to fight of some imaginary enemy that had grown so real in their minds that they didn’t even believe in themselves anymore.

This wasn’t the first time Margaret and Ellie had been trapped in the north.

When the RCMP officers found the girls, fourteen and twelve years old, half-starved and more than a little crazed, they had scared one another so badly with imagined noises and shadows that they were ready to turn on one another.

They boy who had been with them, Cameron Charles, hadn’t fared so well.

They refused to speak, for weeks, after the police had found them and brought them back to La Crosse. They didn’t know what had happened to Cameron. They had lost track of everything except this mad idea that they needed to watch the other one.

When Cameron’s body was found, miles from their campsite, it appeared he had been running, and tripped. He fell down a steep, rocky embankment, and hit his head. It was hard to tell, since wild animals had been after him. But the police never suspected foul play.  Neither of the girls was ever charged with anything.

Margaret and Ellie came up with the pact, then. When your mind starts playing tricks on you out in the woods, you keep it to yourself. Act normal, and everything will be normal. Act afraid, and you will find things to be afraid of. Or they will find you.

Margaret only hoped that it wasn’t too late to keep her superstitious nonsense to herself.

###

“Ready to explore?” Robert asked. His tight smile suggested that he wasn’t feeling his usual relaxed, carefree self. “I’ll be you my peanut butter granola bar we find them before lunch, laughing it up just inside the mineshaft.”

“There was no inside to that mineshaft,” Ellie said. “It was just a room.”

One room. With stuff for one person. On person who could be living there, just up the hill from their campsite, untying canoes and creeping around their tent at night—

“That was yesterday. Today is today,” Robert said. “They probably hid the entrance. That’s what I would do.”

“You would never do something like this,” Margaret said.

Robert didn’t answer.

“I’ll go in,” Margaret said, suddenly. As if she could take back her words by doing something she really didn’t want to do. She didn’t want to have anything to do with Drake Mine. “I should be the one to go in first.”

“We’ll go in together,” Robert said, sensibly.

But she didn’t want him to, she found. Normally, Margaret loved Robert’s quiet chivalry. The way he supported her without even needing to be celebrated or acknowledged for it. He did it as naturally as he breathed. But she didn’t want him to. Not now.

“No,” she said. “What if there’s a hole or something, what if they fell?” She avoided the word ‘trap.’

“We all need to be looking out for anything strange,” Ellie said. “I’m with Robert. We all go in together, or none of us go in.”

Margaret didn’t reply. She just kept climbing up the rocks, gaining steadily on the door in the cliff side. The emergency exit. The shanty. Whatever it was.

It was early now, and they had lots of bright, direct sunlight. Margaret kept her eyes peeled for signs that there was more to this mine site than just a hole-in-the-wall. Her eyes scanned the underbrush for bits of ancient foundations like had been visible at the north end of the lake. Or the bits of rust that tinged the rocks where old tools weathered away and disintegrated into iron flecks that bled into the stones.

But so far she saw nothing.

It bothered Margaret that the wood that boarded up this supposed mine entrance was so new. Perhaps it was, once, a part of the original Drake expedition. But there was no question in her mind that there had been someone using it. Someone, she thought, who could be creeping around, untying canoes in the dark, and whispering in the night. Someone who was trying to unsettle them.

To what end, though?

Had Frank known about all of this ahead of time? Maybe he had a friend up in these parts. Maybe he was trying to teach Margaret a lesson about “reality” as he so often put it. Would Mom go along with that?

“Alright,” Ellie said. They approached the entrance to the little hovel. “Let’s do this. Who’s first?”

Margaret approached the rough doorway and pulled aside the too-new boards that covered it. The pale morning light seeped in through the opening she made, illuminating the darkness in watery streaks of gray. Her eyes took in the living space slowly. The room was tiny, mostly bare, cut directly from the granite of the shield. A pile thin twigs, dried moss, and torn fabric lay balled-up in one corner. Tinder, maybe? Or maybe mice were the most recent occupants here, and Margaret had nothing to worry about.

The stone floor didn’t leave much room for evidence like footprints. But Margaret couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had been here. Had Frank and crew disturbed it when they were investigating yesterday? Would they have broken down the door, peeked inside, and decided to look further up the cliff? Or had they crossed the threshold, as she was about to do now.

Margaret stepped into the cave. That’s what it was, a cave. The cool granite seemed to reflect her body heat back at her, making the little room slightly warmer than it had been, outside in the morning air. She crouched next to the little camp stove. There was no accompanying bottle of propane or white gas. Whoever had been using it wasn’t using it anymore. The hinges were so rusted that Margaret doubted the lid would open anymore.

The sleeping bag was in a similar state of disuse. It was flattened by age and deflated by mice. Tiny tears in the side showed where rodents had pulled the stuffing out and made off with their treasure. There wouldn’t be much warmth offered from a bag like that. Maybe she was being paranoid after all.

A draft of warm air swirled around her. Robert stood behind her and shone his flashlight along the walls. “I don’t think this is connected to anything.”

“No,” Ellie said. “It’s just a room.”

The draft stirred again. Margaret looked around the walls for a crack or a seam, somewhere the air could be coming from. “Do you guys feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“The air,” Margaret said. “It’s moving. And it’s warm. Crouch down here.”

The three of them knelt on the stone floor, their hands held out before them like dousing rods. Cool air from outside sucked past their hands, through their fingers. Toward the sleeping bag, Margaret thought.

Robert seemed to have the same idea. He extended his flashlight hand and flicked back the deflated bag using the end of the Maglite. Margaret sucked in a breath so sharply it hurt her teeth. There, beneath the ratty old military surplus sack, was a trap door.

“I think we know where they’re hiding,” Robert said.

Ellie held a hand up to the edge of the door. “There’s definitely warm air coming from down there. Why is it warm, though?”

“Probably goes below the frost line,” Margaret said. “This time of year, it’s warmed below ground than above.”

“They’ve probably got a fire going,” Robert added.

Suddenly Ellie pulled her hand back. She scrambled backwards out of the cave and into the sunlight. Margaret followed her, her unease magnified by her sister’s stiff posture. “What’s wrong?”

Ellie didn’t answer. She stared into the trees, the corners of her eyes pinched in concentration. It was as if she was counting the trees, cataloging them, making sure every one of them was present and accounted for. Or perhaps, that there were no extras.

Robert stumbled out after them. He tripped on the lip of the cave and banged his shin on one of the protruding boards. “Shit.”

“You okay?”

There was a gouge in the fabric of his pants, and a deep stain bloomed out below the tear. Margaret saw the bent nail sticking out of the board he’d collided with.

“For fuckssake,” Robert said. “Now I’m going to get tetanus.”

“You aren’t up on your vaccinations?”

“I don’t vaccinate,” Robert said. “I don’t want adult-onset autism.”

“Shut up,” Margaret said. “Don’t you need to have your shots up to date for work?”

“I’ll probably be fine,” Robert said. “Hurts like a mother, though.”

“Do you really think they’re down there?” Ellie asked suddenly.

“Thanks for your concern,” Robert said. “Both of you. Real sweet.”

Ellie ignored him, eyes still intent on the trees. “Just think about it.”

“Where else would they be, Ell?” Margaret felt another wave of panic cresting inside her. The undertow of questions the flooded out of her mind in the face of primal, animal fear.

Ellie fought with herself. Margaret could see the same fear mirrored in her sister. She wanted to say something. Margaret knew that feeling. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t want to break the rules. She didn’t want to make things worse with speculation. But Margaret had already broken the pact. She had already opened the door to panic. To hysteria.

“The sleeping bag,” Ellie said finally.

“Yeah,” Robert said. “Clever.”

“We had to move it to get to the door,” Ellie said.

Then Margaret understood. All the hairs on her body stood on end, then. She said, “Then somebody had to put it back.”

NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” by S.C. Jensen PART 2

23222902_2135986889961848_997101601_o

In an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the NaNoWriMo course this year, I’ve decided to post my progress here once or twice a week. No, I don’t mean I’ll tell you whether or not I met my word count goals every day. I mean I’m going to share my actual NaNo draft with you in all its ugly, unfinished glory! This is Part 2 of my progress. You can find Part 1 here.

I figure NaNoWriMo is a lot like writing a serialized novel; you have a rigorous pace to keep and no time to go back and change things or fuss around with word choices. This is a first draft habit I struggle with and really need to improve upon. So I’m committing to writing 50K words this month, and sharing with you as I go. I hope you will read along, toss me the occasional word of encouragement, and inspire me with ideas for what should happen next. The working title for this piece is “The Hunger” and it is a supernatural thriller about a family canoe trip that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Enjoy!

*************************************************************************************

 

Chapter Four

Margaret settled her knees into the bow of the canoe, dug her paddle into the rocky ground beneath them, and pushed off. The scrape of the hull against the shore reverberated through the boat and into Margaret’s belly. It was a warm, comfortable feeling despite the chill in the air. With the waters of Reyer Lake lapping against the canoes, Margaret finally started to relax.

The boat rocked gently when Robert hopped into the stern. Then all of their movements seemed to soften, to melt into the cold gray waters of Reyer. The weightlessness of the canoe lifted Margaret’s spirits. She dipped her paddle into the lake, and felt the familiar tug of the north drawing her onto the water.

Those first moments of calm silence on the lake were like a drug slipping into Margaret’s veins. It would be wrong to break it. A disruption. Already, Margaret had that otherworldly feeling that crept over her at the beginning of a journey. Passing onto the lake was like crossing a threshold into otherness. She was a stranger here. A trespasser.

“Did you get a copy of the map?” Ellie sat behind Margaret, in the middle of the laden canoe. “Or are we following the Swine brothers?”

Margaret kept her voice low. “I have one.”

The chatter from the other boats grated on Margaret’s nerves. She dug into the water. The satisfying burn of warming muscles spread down her back and across her shoulders. The sound of water dripping from her paddle was rhythmic and soothing. She wanted to put some distance between their canoe and the others. She wanted, as much as possible, to be alone.

Margaret looked back over her shoulder to make sure the red canoes were still upright. She felt a little guilty leaving Mom behind with the Swains like that, but right now she didn’t want to listen to Frank lecturing about how old the rocky outcroppings were, or what minerals made up the multi-coloured striations in the granite, or what temperature water trout preferred to breed in. She wanted the silence of the lake, uninterrupted.

Instead of the canoes, though, Margaret’s gaze found the cabin on the shore. The stand of birch trees closed in around it as they glided farther away. The sandy parking area was nothing but a dirty yellow smear against the edge of the lake. The figure of Bill Williams was just visible against it, a dark thing standing perfectly still. One arm stretched up above his head. Waving, maybe. The gesture elongated his body. The man stretched and distended until he was one with the tall, thin trunks of the trees behind him and Margaret couldn’t see him anymore.

Everything this far north became long and thin. Down around La Crosse, the forest was thick and green year round. The undergrowth was rich with berry bushes and lush mosses. The trees were the same as on Reyer Lake, black spruce and jack pines. But here, the trees were fewer and farther between. The branches were fewer and farther between. The needles. The trees were sparse in every sense of the word. It was colder. Roots were deeper. Food was scarcer. Between the trees was a blanket of rock and dried needles, a few low bushes and lichens were the only things that wanted to grow. The forest was hungry up here.

“You know where you’re going?” Frank called out across the water. Margaret flinched. “Ten clicks up, east shore. We should be able to reach it before dark.”

“Not the way you paddle,” Ellie muttered. “Are there any closer spots?”

It had been an early morning, and an eight hour drive to get to Moose Lips. The sun was already sinking against the blackened tips of the pines ahead. Margaret braced her paddle against the gunnel and pulled the collar of her jacket tighter. While the days were crisp and sunny in the early autumn, the evening air was sharper. A cold wind sighed down the length of the lake toward them, licking at the top of the water, and making little ridges on the glassy surface. “We’ll find something.”

Any flattish spot would do, really. Margaret wasn’t worried about finding a place to camp. Now that they were out on the water she was surprised that she wasn’t really worried about much at all. The fears that had crept up on her when Frank first suggested the trip out to Drake Mine diminished with each stroke of her paddle.

Trips into the bush often had this effect on Margaret. There was something relaxing about being outside, away from the buzz of civilization. The rules were simpler out here. Even the tiny village of La Crosse could be overwhelming sometimes. Margaret didn’t even like to think about the city. The city was for the Swains of the world. Not Margaret.

So much of her life seemed to suffocate but here, out on the water, Margaret could breath. She’d fought black waves of depression and electric shocks of anxiety her entire life, as far back as she could remember. The fluctuations of her moods were like echoes of memories of her father. Dullness punctuated with bursts of dark anger and flashes of white hot panic. The obsessiveness that came with a desperate need to seek control in a world that seemed to swim around her, ever-faster, until she was swept up in a tidal pool of emotions, and sensations, and thoughts that were hers-but-not-quite-hers.

It’s no wonder Frank got frustrated with her. He was a straight edge, perfectly linear in thought and action. Ever since Frank had moved in with Mom, Margaret had been a storm battering at his walls. The perfectly straight walls of logic, and progress, and common-sense. Frank was sensible. Margaret was sensitive. That was the line he used to divide them.

Why couldn’t she like Frank? He was doing the best he could, even if he was an arrogant prick sometimes. But the feeling would never go away. Frank was a stranger, even though she’d known him for years. Maybe this trip would help.

In spite of her resentment towards Frank, Margaret really did want them to feel like a family. She wanted her mother to be happy. She was determined to make this trip work.

Margaret took a deep, cool breath and let herself sink into the feeling of paddling. She hadn’t been out since spring, and she’d missed it. The rhythmic tug of each slice through the water, the warmth in her muscles in contrast to the cold air, the sound of water dripping, water lapping, water slipping away from the hull of the boat. It was her lullaby. Ellie and Robert kept their thoughts to themselves, each enjoying a private moment with the lake. Good paddling partners made all the difference.

The big white canoe easily outstripped the little red ones, even loaded as heavily as they were. They had three experienced paddlers and momentum on their side. Margaret made a mental note not to let themselves get too far ahead. But they picked up speed effortlessly, gliding through the water like a great white fish. It was almost impossible to slow down once they got into that rhythm. Margaret lost herself in the paddling. The water seemed to pull them along at its own pace, they were merely passengers.

“Wind’s picking up,” Robert said.

How long had it been? Margaret’s shoulders burned. The little surface ridges had become small white caps. The exposed skin on her cheeks felt icy and damp. The joints in her hands were stiff and achey, the skin raw with cold. “Let’s pull in toward the shore. Can you see the others?”

Reyer Lake curved slightly east, then west again. On the map it looked a bit like a weasel, twisting its way across the terrain. They followed the eastern shore, since that was where the campsites were marked. As they got off the open water and closer to the trees, the line of sight back towards Moose Lips Lodge was broken. Bill Williams, if he was still standing on the shore, wouldn’t be able to see them anymore.

Margaret couldn’t see the little red canoes, either. She stuck her paddle into the water, the flat blade breaking against the waves to slow them down. Reyer Lake was restless against the early evening light. The sun went down and seemed to take all the colour with it. The blue sky had become pale and gray, the evergreens blackened, the water teamed against their canoe. Margaret scanned the lake for the other boats.

A loon called out, signalling the end of the day. Its throaty laugh trembled, rising and falling with the waves. Another loon joined in. Margaret couldn’t see the loons or the canoes. But the sound of laughter built up to a crescendo around them, echoing off the shoreline and escalating to a fever pitch as it swept across the lake. The hairs on Margaret’s neck stood up and pressed against her jacket almost painfully.

“There they are,” Robert said. Just then, the monotonous gray water was broken by two slashes of red. The setting sun cast one last of beam of golden yellow light toward the canoes. Water glinted off their paddles, flashing and sparkling in the falling dusk. When the sun disappeared into the pines for good, the boats became nothing more than shadows.

“Okay, let’s slow down. We need to find a spot to camp.”

Margaret and Ellie paddled gently while Robert guided them in toward the rocky shoreline. Margaret watched the darkening waters carefully. Rock shelves could pop up anywhere in these northern lakes, but they were especially hazardous closer to shore.

It wasn’t long before a pale finger of rock reached out of the darkness and beckoned them in to shore. The smooth gray stone stretched out of the forest, low and flat. It would be easy to haul the boats onto. As they approached the little peninsula, Margaret could see the shape of a campfire ring nestled closer to the trees. She swept her paddle out of the water. “Over there.”

Their canoe slid closer to shore and the lengthening shadows stretched out to meet them. The trees were thicker here than they had been at Williams’ place. Or maybe it just looked that way in the waning light, shadows thickening the underbrush, fleshing out the trees. Bare birch branches creaked in the wind and pine needles sighed. Margaret’s face ached. But they were almost there.

The hairs on her neck prickled again.  Margaret didn’t like approaching a campsite in the darkness.  But the stirrings of panic swirled in her chest like the little whirlpools that twisted off the blade of her paddle. She felt exposed, suddenly, out on the water like this. She felt like they were being watched.

Trees don’t have eyes, Maggie, she chastised herself in Frank’s voice. Don’t let your imagination run away…

The scrape of rock against their hull startled Margaret out of her reverie. “Shit! Sorry guys. Didn’t see that one.”

Robert steered them in against the shore, swinging the back of the canoe towards the finger-like outcropping. “Heads up!”

Margaret reached out to the rock with her paddle, tucked the blade into a crevice, leveraged her weight against the shaft, and pulled them in closer. Ellie braced the canoe with her own paddle and Margaret hopped out onto the rock. “Got it.”

With her feet planted on solid ground, Margaret felt suddenly heavy. Tired. The hours of the day caught up to her in a rush. They unloaded the canoe quickly, without speaking. Robert scouted out a flat spot for the tent and set it up. Ellie gathered kindling and got a fire started. Margaret unpacked the cooler and put a pot of water on to boil. She kept half an eye on the red boats as they fought their way toward the shore against the growing waves.

“This isn’t the spot,” Frank called out once they were within shouting distance.

“You want to keep going in this?” Robert called back. “It’s going to be pitch black soon, and the waves are getting worse.”

“We’ll have to make up the distance tomorrow,” Frank said as they got closer. He didn’t want to give in, but he didn’t want to keep paddling, either. Margaret knew. “I hope you’re ready to wake up early.”

There was a flurry of activity when the other two boats landed. Margaret rehydrated some moose meat stew and boiled more water for tea. Two more tents went up with relatively little fuss. Brian might be a pain in the ass, but he knew how to set up camp quickly. Frank dragged the boats up onto the shore and tied them down. Margaret didn’t say anything, but she watched Robert wander over and inspect the knots on his way to bush to pee. She loved that man.

“We should be able to get to Drake tomorrow if we’re up early and paddle hard,” Frank said when they were finally all settled in around the campfire. Margaret sighed but she didn’t have the energy to argue. A belly full of stew and hot, sweet tea to wash it down, the flicker of light from the campfire dancing around them in the dark. This was just about perfect, in Margaret’s books. She’d be happy if they just stayed here and did a couple of day trips to explore the area. Forget about Drake Mine and Frank’s expedition.

Margaret shifted closer to the fire and leaned back against Robert’s legs. He rested his mug of tea on her shoulder and rubbed her neck with one hand. The warmth from the cup kissed her cheek and reminded her that this was a vacation. She let herself relax.

Margaret looked up at the night sky, the little pinpricks of light against the pitch black blanket of space. She tried to discern the outline of the trees against the darkness, but they seem to stretch into the void infinitely. Rocks and trees and sky became one as night fell in earnest around them. No one had energy to speak, it seemed. The group fell into a comfortable, exhausted silence. The only sounds were the crackling of the logs on the fire, the sighing of wind through the trees, and the soft lapping of waves against the shore.

In that moment, Margaret did feel at home on Reyer Lake.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

That night the wind howled through their camp like a thing, enraged. Branches battered their tents. The surrounding trees fought the restraint of their skeletal forms, thrashing like madmen. They stretched farther than they ought to be able to just, it seemed to Margaret, so they could whip at the campers. Snapping and cracking, limbs crashed to the forest floor around them and scraped across the granite shore.

“This is wild.” Ellie sat up, wide-eyed and cross-legged, leaning toward the centre of the tent. Margaret and Robert huddled in close. No one wanted to be near the shaking walls in case a branch landed on them. “This is fucking wild.”

Robert nodded silently. There was nothing to say. They just huddled next to one another and listened to the raging of the storm. Margaret strained her ears, trying to determine the source of the noises. Hollow thumping from the boats, the clash and clatter of metal cookware rolling across the rocks, shrieks of wind that sounded like human voices. Margaret listened, but there was nothing to say.

Panic boiled and twisted inside her brain. Margaret sensed the ramping up of anxiety, the wave-like rush of pure fear that could sweep her over the edge at any minute. She thought she’d left this ride at home. She thought she’d left it behind. But Margaret was strapped in as tight as she ever was, and she braced herself for the inevitable chaos of emotion and hyper-sensitivity that came with a high. The high and the mad dash into hopelessness that would follow.

Robert grabbed her hand. Light from the little battery operated camping lantern illuminated his face in a blue glow. His eyes flashed, little glinting shards of glass in blackened sockets. But his mouth was his, wide soft lips and always that hint of a smile. He squeezed her fingers between his. The heat of his hand pulled her back down, back out of her head and into her body. “Stay with me,” he said.

“We shouldn’t have come here,” Margaret said.

“This is wild,” Ellie said again. She rocked in and out of the light from the lantern, just slightly. The motion cast dizzying shadows against the walls of the tent. Margaret put a hand on her arm to stay her; Ellie was shaking. Margaret closed her eyes.

The wind roared in and out of the camp, ceaselessly. It seemed to go on forever, increasing steadily. Impossibly loud. Then a gasp, a pause between gusts.

Another noise pierced the darkness.

“Is that Mom?” Ellie’s arm tensed beneath Margaret’s hand. “Mom’s crying.”

Margaret’s eyes shot open and she reached for the zipper. “We should check.”

Robert yanked hard on her arm and Margaret fell backwards. “Stay in the fucking tent.”

His voice shocked Margaret more than pain in her arm. Robert had never raised his voice for as long as she’d known him. She pulled her arm out of his grasp and stared at him. The wind howled again, obscuring the crying sound. Sweat beaded on Roberts forehead and his eyes flashed again. “Please. You could get hurt. I’m sorry.”

“But Mom—”

“She’s fine. Scared probably. But she’s fine. Frank is with her.”

Ellie stared at the tent door. The wind sucked it in and out violently. The whole tent moved like someone was shaking it from the outside. Horror drained the colour from Ellie’s face. This was more than wild. “Don’t go out there, Mags.”

The three of them huddled in the centre of the tent, keeping as far from the sides as possible. They wrapped the sleeping bags around their bodies, cocooning themselves against the storm. The pounding of Margaret’s heart was loud enough to drown out the sound of the storm. Eventually, she fell into a fitful sleep.

Chapter Six

When they crawled out of the tent the next morning, Margaret couldn’t believe their gear had survived. But for all the violence of the storm, most of their belongings were where they’d left them. The cooler had tipped over, and a couple of tin mugs had to be retrieved from the bushes. But the camp was more or less the way they’d left it.

Margaret gathered up some of the deadfall that broke off in the winds, but there wasn’t much. A few old, dry branches had come down, and the rest was barely big enough for kindling. She shook her head in wonder as she walked around the tents. A snore shook the side of Brian and Gerald’s tent and Margaret burst out laughing, nearly mad with relief.

Despite his threats for an early start, Frank and the others didn’t drag themselves into the morning air until Ellie was making the second pot of coffee. Mom emerged, braiding her long black hair in a thick rope over her shoulder. She stretched like a cat and grinned at Margaret.

“Good morning, sweetie.”

Ellie brought her a cup of coffee. “Are you okay, Mom?”

“I slept like a baby.” Mom held the coffee up to her face and took a deep breath. “How about you?”

Ellie’s eyes swept over to Margaret. She frowned. “How the hell did you manage to sleep through that storm?”

“What storm?” Frank stumbled out of the tent and began rummaging through the cooler. “That bit of wind, you mean?”

“Bit of wind?” Robert looked up in disbelief. “I’m pretty sure old man winter tried to blow us into the lake.”

“Maybe you should have brought your teddy bear,” Brian scoffed. “Keep the bogey men away.”

“Maybe you should keep your mouth shut.” Margaret poured herself the last cup of coffee before Brian could reach the pot.

“Hey!”

Ellie tossed him the beans. “Make your own, slacker.”

“You know how it is,” Frank said. “Things always sound worse from inside the tent. Noises get amplified. One time I was doing exploration up by the Cigar site, I was sure there was a bear outside my tent. Woke up in the morning, nothing but rabbit tracks.”

“Might have been something else,” Ellie said.

Margaret shot her a look. “Don’t.”

“Well, I want to know who’s holding out,” Robert said. “C’mon. Who brought the booze? I could use a little Irish in my coffee after a night like that.”

“Guilty as charged.” Gerald pulled a silver flask from inside his Gore-Tex jacket. Typical city slicker, the cost of his gear was inversely proportionate to the number of times he ever used it.

“You’re a good man, Gerry.” Robert held out his cup. “Top her up. I’m going to go let a little out of the tank.”

Not a minute later, Robert was back. He walked stiffly up to the campfire, his face ashen. The pounding started in Margaret’s ears again. “What is it, Bobby?”

Robert didn’t look at her. He didn’t take the coffee cup that Gerald held out to him. He said, “The canoes are gone.”

 

 

Chapter Seven

“I don’t understand,” Frank said. He held a piece of nylon rope in his hand. It was still secured to the tree he’d tied it to. The ends kinked from where he’d knotted them, but the knot had not held. “I tied them up last night.”

“I know,” Robert said. “I checked your knots.”

“What, you don’t trust me to tie a damned boat?”

“We spent eight hours yesterday taking bets on which bump was going to send a canoe through our windshield,” Ellie snapped. “I don’t blame him.”

“What the hell is—”

“The fucking boats are gone, Frank!” Margaret cut him off, her voice rising as another wave of anxiety pitched her forward. “Do you need more evidence than that?”

“They were fine, though,” Robert interrupted. “The knots were sound. The ropes are still holding the shape for fuckssake. They were tight.”

“It’s almost like someone untied them,” Brian inspected the yellow fibers. “There’s no damage. Even in strong winds this shouldn’t have happened. Knots get tighter when you pull on them.”

“Good knots…”

“That’s not helpful, Ellie.” Mom’s voice was dangerously calm.

“Maybe old Bill Williams is fucking with us,” Brian said.

“Could be,” Frank said. “I don’t trust him. Ghost stories. Fake name.”

“Wait,” Margaret said. “Fake names?”

“C’mon, Bill Williams?” Brian said. “I didn’t buy it either.”

“Now who’s being paranoid?” Ellie laughed without humour. “You gave Maggie such a hard time for not wanting to come up here at the end of October to go spelunking in a fucking mineshaft because that’s ‘dramatic.’ But you’re willing to believe than an old man canoed across the lake in the middle of a storm just to add credibility to his fake ghost story? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I think everybody needs to take a deep breath and a swig of the sauce,” Gerald said, suddenly the voice of reason.

“Gerry’s right.” Robert took the proferred flask. Foregoing the coffee, he took a long pull. He stared dully across the waters of Reyer. “It doesn’t matter if it was the wind or a man. We need to find those boats.”

“Why are you even entertaining the idea that Williams had—”

“Can it, Ellie.” Mom took the flask from Robert and shoved it at her younger daughter. “It doesn’t matter. We need a plan.”

Ellie’s eyes flashed over the rim of the flask, but she drank. Margaret could see the line connecting their eyes, Mom’s silent fight for control and Ellie’s willful defiance. Finally, Ellie broke. She took a sip and spat. “I’m going for a walk.”

Margaret broke from the group and followed her sister into the trees. She appreciated that Ellie stood up for her back there. And Margaret didn’t think it likely that Williams had anything to do with the missing canoes. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong here. Yes, she often felt that way for ‘no reason.’ But her imagination hadn’t untied the canoes last night. And someone had been crying last night. She was sure of that. “Ellie, wait!”

Ellie spun and faced her. Her cheeks were splotchy with cold and fighting back uncharacteristic tears. “You were right, Mags. We shouldn’t have come here.”

“Don’t let them get to you, Ellie.”

“It’s not that, it’s—” She ran her hands through her hair and pulled her hood up to cover her face. Ellie hated getting emotional. Margaret was the basket case in the family. “Ugh. Okay. They are getting to me.”

“You hear the wind last night,” Margaret said. “I know Robert checked Frank’s knots but—”

“Yeah. I know.” Ellie turned away and stared into the trees. “But this place is weirding me out.”

“Let’s go back,” Margaret urged. The trees were starting to make her feel claustrophobic. They seemed to multiply, filling in the spaces between them the longer she looked at them. Margaret and Ellie had a rule when they were out in the bush. Don’t talk about strange things. Don’t talk about strange feelings. Don’t draw attention to your fears. “Let’s just go back.”

“Alright.” Ellie wiped her eyes and turned around. Then she froze. “Shit. That little fucking shit.”

“What are you—?” Margaret spun. She saw it too.

Their canoe. The white one, stuck out of the bushes a few meters from where they stood. A few loose branches lay on top of it, but it was otherwise fine. A dark line in the undergrowth led away from the canoe back toward the camp, like it had been dragged. Realization dawned on Margaret.

“Brian.” Ellie said, echoing Margaret’s thoughts. “He was pretty fucking quick to point the finger at Bill Williams.”

“You think he’s trying to scare us?”

“Oh come on,” Ellie sneered. “He’d love that. Teasing us for listening to Williams’ story, being nervous about the mine. This is exactly the kind of thing he would do.”

“Kind of a dick move, even for Brian.”

“Think about it. The storm? Everyone else sleeps through a ‘bit of wind.’ Our tent was shaking like someone grabbed it from the outside—”

“—and the crying noises,” Margaret said. A wave of embarrassment rushed over her. They had been terrified last night. Brian had probably been laughing to himself until morning. No wonder he’d slept in. “Asshole. I bet he loved that.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“Let’s have a look for the other canoes, first. They must be somewhere around here.”

“No. What are we going to do to him,” Ellie’s eyes flashed dangerously. “We can’t let him get away with this.”

“We can let him think he’s getting away with it,” Margaret said. “We can play along.”

Ellie grinned and slapped her sister on the back. “Yes!”

“We’ll beat him at his own game,” Margaret said.

Ellie said, “And then I’m going to beat him with a paddle.”

 

 

Chapter Eight

But they didn’t find the other boats amongst the trees.

Margaret and Ellie walked back to the camp with the white canoe on their shoulders. The paddles were still lashed inside. When they swung it down onto the rocks beside the tents the rest of the group erupted in applause.

“Where the hell was that?” Robert asked.

“Where are the other two?” Margaret asked. She looked at Brian as she said it, but didn’t linger. She didn’t want to think so, but he seemed genuinely relieved to see them.

Robert pointed out across the water. Two little dots of red were barely visible against the far shore of Reyer Lake.

“Well that’s a bit extreme,” Ellie muttered behind Margaret.

“What the actual fuck,” Margaret said.

“Well don’t look like that,” Brian said. “At least we have one canoe. I thought Robert was going to have to go swimming.”

“Yeah.” Margaret said. “Right.”

“Fuel up, Mags.” Robert passed her a tin bowl full of steaming hot oatmeal. “We’re going to get our exercise this morning.”

“Are you done eating?” Margaret asked. “I’m not hungry.”

“Let’s go then,” Robert said. Margaret saw that is own bowl was untouched as well. “Ellie?”

“I’m going to stay here.” Ellie caught Margaret’s gaze meaningfully. “Keep an eye on the riff raff.”

“We’re the riff raff,” Robert said. “Tally ho, Maggie!”

###

When they were a safe distance onto the lake Margaret told Robert about her and Ellie’s suspicions. Robert didn’t say much. When Margaret looked back over her shoulder at him she saw his face was frozen in a look of deep concentration. His eyes focussed unwaveringly on the red canoes, as if he didn’t want to let them out of his sight again.

“I’ve never liked Brian,” he said, finally. “You know that.”

“I know.”

“He was piss scared when you two were gone.” Robert dug deep into the water and propelled them forward with a powerful stroke. “I thought he was, anyway. You think they teach acting in the army?”

“He probably thought we’d make him go swimming when we found out,” Margaret laughed. “Put those macho military skills to work.”

“Fucking prick.”

“Ellie wants to beat him with a paddle.”

“Maybe he’ll do us all a favour and fall down the mineshaft.”

Margaret was quiet for a bit. “Just don’t push him, okay?”

They paddled in silence for a while. The sun was up, reflecting in bright slashes across the water. The morning chill was burning off in a thin fog around the edges of the lake. The wind from last night had died completely, but an occasional stirring sent swirls of steam up like puffs of breath from the trees.

The canoes had landed about a kilometre down the lake, towards Bill Williams’ cabin. Brian might have been messing with them last night, but Margaret could see they’d gotten more than ‘a bit of wind.’ The red hulls of the boats could be seen from their campsite because they had been tossed up on the bank, meters from the shoreline. “Must have been some storm.”

Robert kept paddling. “Yeah.”

Even in the calm morning waters it seemed to take forever to get to the boats. Then again, Margaret didn’t feel the usual muscle burn from paddling. Robert’s sense of urgency had died about halfway across the lake, too. Like they were just killing time. Subconsciously, Margaret wondered if she was stalling. The longer it took them to get the boats, the less likely it was that they’d get back in time to pack up and up the lake to their next spot. Last night hadn’t been fun, and if Brian was going to keep playing stupid pranks she didn’t really want to be three days from the nearest road and satellite radio when Ellie or Robert decided to take things into their own hands. Beating him at his own game was a great idea, in theory, but Margaret would rather not have to play at all.

“I don’t even want to get the canoes,” Robert said, echoing her thoughts.

After forty-five minutes of leisurely padding, the hull of their own canoe bumped up against the steep, rocky shoreline. This wasn’t a camper-friendly landing. The granite poking through the trees and scrubby bushes fell toward the waters of Reyer at a sixty degree angle. The red boats were wedged up between some lichened rocks out of Margaret’s reach.

“I’m going to have to get out and push them in from up there,” she said.

Robert steadied the boat for her and Margaret hopped out onto the rocks. The bank was steep enough that she needed to put both hands down to pull herself up toward the red canoes. When she reached them, Margaret was surprised to see all four paddles set neatly next to the boats. “Look at this.”

“Convenient,” Robert said. “Or someone is fucking with us.”

“Shut up and grab this thing, would you?” Margaret pushed the first canoe up over the rock it was nestled against the rocks and pushed it toward the water.

Something across the water caught her eye. A dark spot in the scraggly gray trees, just up the hill from where they had set up camp. From her vantage point on the far shore, Margaret could see the way the ground sloped upward and the forest became thicker. Evergreen covered hills rolled in the distance.

“Okay, okay, I take it back!” Robert shouted. The red canoe knocked theirs sideways and he scrambled to steady himself against the rocks with an outstretched arm. “You don’t have to try to drown me.”

“What the fuck is that?” Margaret pointed.

“What are you—?” Robert looked up across the lake. “—oh. What?”

“It’s like a door in the Cliffside,” Margaret said. “Is that the mine?”

“I thought it was at the north end of the lake?” Robert said. “We’re at least twenty kilometers from Frank’s x on this map.”

“Maybe the map’s wrong?” Margaret said. “It wouldn’t be the first thing Frank screwed up this trip.”

“Come one, toss me that other boat,” Robert said. “Not on my head this time. Let’s get back and check it out.”

Margaret grabbed the second canoe by the gunwales and pushed it down the embankment, careful to ease it in next to Robert this time. He flipped it expertly into the water beside him and secured both smaller boats to the larger white one. “Okay, ready set. Where do you want me to pull up?”

But when Robert looked up at Margaret, his eyes seemed to slide right off as if tugged toward the trees behind her. All of the hairs on Margaret’s body stood on end. She felt it, too. It was as if the trees had been creeping up toward her while she struggled with the boats. Now the stirring of the leaves in the gentle morning breeze sounded too loud in her ears. Like the birch branches were shaking right behind her head, as if they were reaching out to touch her. If she just stayed there, she would feel the cold scratching fingers of—

“Hey, earth to Maggie.” Robert clapped his hand and waved. “Where do you want me?”

He was looking at her again, actually at her. But his expression was odd. Looked at the door in the cliff across the lake one last time. “You’re fine there.”

She tried to climb down the rocks as carefully as she could, but her legs felt like jelly. It was that awful dream sensation where you try so hard to run and feel like you’re swimming through molasses. A patch of electric orange lichen sloughed off beneath her foot and Margaret slid into a crack between stones, twisting her ankle. “Shit.”

“You okay?” Robert swung the blade of his paddle toward her and wedged it into the rocks. “Here, brace yourself.”

Margret grasped the shaft and pulled herself out from between the rocks. Whatever had been weighing on her disappeared as she stepped lightly into the boat, kneeled, and grabbed her own paddle. “Got it. Thanks.”

When they were out on the lake, the two smaller canoes trailing behind them, Robert spoke. “I need to sleep tonight.”

“Yeah,” Margaret said. “I’m tired, too.”

“You’re tired,” he said. “I’m hallucinating.”

“What do you mean?”

“I keep feeling like the trees are moving,” Robert said. “Here and at camp. Like they’re stepping closer.”

Margaret felt that tingle o the surface of her skin as the hairs rose up again. But she followed her and Ellie’s pact. “You do need sleep,” she said.

“What’s up with the mine, though,” he asked. “You’ve been around here before. Are there other entrances to Drake that you know of?”

She’d been up here before. Yes. She didn’t want to talk about it. “I don’t know. I didn’t really pay attention. I think that’s pretty normal, though.”

“That far away?”

“I don’t know.” Margaret really didn’t want to talk about it. “Like you said, maybe the map is wrong. We didn’t go to Drake Mine when I was here last. We weren’t stupid.”

“Well, I think Frank has the stupid covered,” Robert said. “That man is so white he doesn’t have a shadow.”

“Maybe he’s a vampire.”

“Even vampires have shadows.” Robert said. “They just don’t have reflections.”

“You’re the expert.”

“What are you implying, my dear?” Robert flung a cascade of freezing water droplets against Margaret’s jacket. They rolled down her neck and made her shiver. “That I vant to suck your blood?”

“You know the rules, Vlad.” Margaret splashed back at him. “No ‘superstitious nonsense’ until we’re back in civilization.”

“Civilization. Where ‘superstitious nonsense’ gets you a psych appointment and stern talking-to by Frank the Swine?” Robert’s tone was unexpectedly bitter.

Margaret said nothing. Robert had always supported Margaret, and backed her up with Frank thought she was ‘crazy.’ But he’d never been openly hostile toward the man. She could admit, to herself, that she often hated Frank. Brian, too. And the thing with Brian and the storm and the canoes was pushing her towards a line she didn’t really want to cross. Not yet. But in the back of her mind, Margaret thought something had to be done.

“Sorry,” Robert said.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“The guy’s a dick, though.” Robert said. He drove them back toward the camp with strong, steady strokes. “He should have listened to you.”

“Yeah,” Margaret said. “He should have.”

 

 

Flash Fiction Friday: “Cthulhu Rising” by S.C. Jensen

22686814_2130199923873878_825181123_n

This week’s Flash Fiction Friday piece is one of my own. I dedicate this to the Old Ones. Enjoy!

“Cthulhu Rising” by S.C. Jensen

Jake grabbed a hot cup of piss flavoured coffee from the trendy little wharf kiosk and hit the strip. End-of-season stragglers wove their way between mostly closed-up shops looking for desperate vendors with bargain bin prices on their cheap tourist crap. Even the sky was depressed, grey and swollen with inky clots of cloud that threatened to spill their guts across the pier. End of bender clouds. Barf-the-wharf. Jake sipped his hot piss and wished he had a beer.

 

He kept half an eye out for the punter who’d called him in to this shit hole. Probably wearing a bad Hawaiian button down, unbuttoned. Khaki’s. Birkenstocks with socks. Fuck-off huge sunglasses or whatever. They were all the same. Burnouts. Skids. Paranoid schizophrenics. Why did they all shop at the same freakshow store? Freaks-R-Us. Buy one, get one tinfoil hats.

 

“Jake Radcliffe?” Gut punch. The voice pierced his eardrums like a siren. Siren song. His intestines coiled up like spaghetti on a fucking fork. Done for. “Sir?”

 

Of course she was gorgeous. The voice already told him that, all husky, like she’d been screaming all night. But he wasn’t prepared for how gorgeous. Black hair, black eyes, red lips, cheekbones that could cut a steak.

 

“Uh…  Jimmy Park?”

 

“No.” But she held her hand out brusquely. “Jimin Pak. I’m the one who called you.”

 

“My receptionist must have written it down wrong—”

 

“I spoke to you, Mr. Radcliffe.” She withdrew her hand with a whiplike snap.

 

“I was expecting someone less…”

 

“Female? Asian?” She stepped back. “Normal?””

 

“You’re like a china doll.” Jake tossed the piss coffee into the nearest bin and popped piece of wintergreen into his mouth. “If china dolls were sexy as fu—”

 

“I’m Korean, actually.” Pak walked ahead of him, her hips swaying with a metronomic precision. BOOM-boom-BOOM-boom. “And I’m not crazy. I hope you brought your notebook.”

 

“Voice notes.” Jake pulled out his smartphone.

 

“Whatever.” BOOM-boom. “This way to the beach.”

 

“I think you’re supposed to flex when you say that.”

 

“What?”

 

“Nevermind.” Jake took a deep breath and tried to compose himself. He’d been doing the show for five years and he’d never gotten a serious call. Sure, callers thought they were serious. But they were fucking nutjobs. Jimin Pak was not a nutjob. He could smell it. Or maybe it was the Gucci II. Addled the brain, the good stuff. “Are you the one who discovered the—”

 

“Yes.” Pak looked over her shoulder at him. Her hair crashed like a wave over her back; the sea breeze whipped up a froth of flyaways. Goddamn she was gorgeous. “I like to run on the beach in the mornings, before work.”

 

“What do you do, again?”

 

“I’m an attorney, Mr. Radcliffe.” She hopped off the pier and into the sand. She kicked off her hot pink flip flops and tossed her messenger bag to the ground. Jake watched the wet sand squish between her toes and felt weak in the knees. “It’s not far from here.”

 

Pak jogged up the beach, sand spraying behind her. She made it look easy. Jake’s lungs burned and he cursed the joint he’d hotboxed the black Subaru WRX with in the wharf parking lot. He straggled behind her, pretending not to be in a hurry. She was waiting for him when he finally pulled up, gasping.

 

“It’s between those rocks.” She balanced delicately atop a barnacled boulder and pointed into the seaweedy tidepools beyond. “You’ll see it.”

 

Jake did see it. A roiling mass of purple tentacles, too may for an octopus or squid. Too huge to be either, too. The great, suckerless limbs writhed and curled in the low-tide froth, the bloated body swelled with sea-air. The stink was otherworldly.

 

“And you think this is—” Jake didn’t want to put words in the woman’s mouth. The crazies always had plenty of their own. Not that he thought she was a crazy. This thing was real, whatever it was.

 

“A mystery, Jake Radcliffe.” Jimin Pak looked at him with eyes like black holes. “As in, Jake Radcliffe’s Mysteries: Unravelled. That’s why I called you.”

 

Jake filmed the monstrosity with is smartphone, making pointless voice notes just to sound like he knew what he was doing. Inside he was stewing. This was real. This was real as fuck. He needed a crew here, ASAP. This might be his big break into real journalism.

 

“I’ll be right back,” he said. No more myth-busting for Jake Radcliffe. This was scientific shit. Breaking. “I need to call some people.”

 

Jimin Pak watched him stagger up the beach. A great purple tentacle coiled around her calf and brushed her thigh. “Soon, Master. The time of the Old Ones is nigh.”

22752705_2130199927207211_1792703013_n

NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” by S.C. Jensen PART 1

23222902_2135986889961848_997101601_o

It’s that time again! NaNoWriMo kicked off yesterday (that’s National Novel Writing Month to the uninitiated) and in an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the course this year, I’ve decided to post my progress here once or twice a week. No, I don’t mean I’ll tell you whether or not I met my word count goals every day. I mean I’m going to share my actual NaNo draft with you in all its ugly, unfinished glory!

I figure NaNoWriMo is a lot like writing a serialized novel; you have a rigorous pace to keep and no time to go back and change things or fuss around with word choices. This is a first draft habit I struggle with and really need to improve upon. So I’m committing to writing 50K words this month, and sharing with you as I go. I hope you will read along, toss me the occasional word of encouragement, and inspire me with ideas for what should happen next. The working title for this piece is “The Hunger” and it is a supernatural thriller about a family canoe trip that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Enjoy!

Chapter One

The warped and weathered logs of an old trapping cabin peeked out behind a thin stand of birch trees next to the Pointe Nord service road. The dull grey form hunkered between their skeletal bodies like a prisoner in a bone cage. Margaret’s tongue sat in her mouth like a stone. She had lived her entire life in the boreal shield, north of paved roads, surrounded by thick pine forests and slabs of lichened granite. She’d learned to walk in the mossy undergrowth, tumbling down rocky hills. She’d learned to fish with hands pink and aching from the ice-cold water that seemed to break through the stone and push the land apart. This was her home.

But she didn’t feel at home here.

Margaret swallowed the rock in her mouth and got out of the truck.

“You’re a brave lot.” The voice came before its owner. Margaret’s eyes swept through the trees, around the cabin, and over the sandy dirty lot they’d parked in, trying to find a face. A sharp crack snapped her gaze toward a woodpile next to the cabin. A man, as gray and twisted as the cabin itself, materialized between two. He left an axe buried in the chopping block. “Late in the year to be heading out in those.”

“This your place?” Frank slammed the driver’s side door of the other truck. The canoe tied on top of Frank’s truck shifted under the nylon ropes that secured it to the roof. Margaret wondered if there would be streaks of red paint on Frank’s roof, or if the canoe would have streaks of black. Oblivious to his poor tie-down, Frank strode toward the man with a meaty hand outstretched. “Frank Swain.”

“Mine, sure. For now, at least. Never know when the trees will decide to take her back,” the older man said. His long fingers, knotted with age and blackened with use, wrapped around Frank’s. Margaret thought of the birch stand. Cage-like trunks and finger-like branches. They man eyed the red canoe warily. “Good to meet you, Frank. Can I do something for you folks?”

“We’re looking for a ‘Moose Lips Lodge,’” Frank said. He seemed to take in the little clearing and the ramshackle cabin for the first time. “It’s supposed to be around here somewhere.”

The old man laughed. Cackled, really. It was like the sound of branches snapping in the first frost. Cold and dry, but with that peculiar humour of the north. This was a laugh Margaret understood. She didn’t feel at home here, but Frank didn’t belong. The old man caught her smile and winked. “You found it, Mr. Swain.”

“This is the Lodge?”

“My own little joke, I guess.” The man dug a finger into his grizzled beard and scratched his chin. “What are you looking for with old Moose Lips?”

“Well, mister—” Frank trailed off. He liked to be able to drop a person’s name into conversation as many times as possible. Some residual habit from his years in business school, Margaret assumed.

“Bill Williams,” the man said. He stood a little taller, stretching his bent frame upward like a tree toward the sun. “At your service.”

“Bill? As in William?” Frank let out an awkward belch of a laugh. “Did your mother have a sense of humour?”

“Just Bill, as far as I know,” the man said. “As for my mother, I couldn’t tell you. I was named by Jesuits.”

“Well, Bill,” Frank pulled his hand, belatedly, from the man’s grasp. “We heard we could leave our vehicles here. Possibly pick up some supplies.”

“How long you folks going out for?” Bill rubbed his right palm against his coveralls, like the rough, grimy canvas could cleanse him of Frank’s touch. “First frost was only a few nights ago. It’s going to get real cold, real fast.”

“That’s what I told them,” Margaret said. “But Mr. King-of-the-Wild over there thinks he knows what he’s doing.”

“This is my step-daughter, Maggie,” Frank said, as if to excuse her.

“Well, Maggie—“

“Margaret,” Margaret said.

“Margaret.” The old man turned his pale brown eyes on her. He was like an owl, taking in every twitch and every gesture, waiting to swoop in for the kill. “You have good cause to be concerned.”

“It’s perfectly safe,” Frank said. “We have good maps, the right equipment. Brian is a medic. What could go wrong?”

“We’ll be fine,” Brian, Frank’s younger brother, piped up from behind Frank’s truck. Margaret turned to see him shake off and tuck himself into his Levi’s. The youngest Swain was closer in age to Margaret and Ellie than to Frank, the product of a first, failed marriage on Grandpa Gerry’s part. “I don’t know why you’re being so weird about it.”

“Maggie’s not being weird.” Robert wrapped an arm around Margaret’s waist. “She grew up around here. You guys didn’t.”

“Well, you’re still here.” Brian said. “So you can’t be too scared.”

“We’re here because mom’s here.” Ellie stepped up next to Margaret and Robert, the only sane ones in the group. “Fucked if we’re going to let you morons take her into the wilderness without at least one set of wits to share about the group.”

“One set?” Brian sidled up next to Frank. “Who gets to claim the brains?”

“Just stop it,” Mom slammed the back door of the black truck. “We haven’t even started yet and the bickering is going to kill me.”

“Well, you can leave the trucks here. Keys, too. Or not. Some folks do, some folks don’t.” Bill Williams took the bickering in stride. “I have a satellite radio here if you do need help out there; just send someone back to see me. But I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“Of course we’ll be fine,” Brian scoffed.

“We haven’t had anyone die or go missing in years,” Bill said. The others laughed. Margaret fought back a chill creeping up the backs of her legs. It settled at the base of her spine.

“Yeah.” Margaret tugged at a blue nylon knot that secured her own canoe. The rope loosened, and she and Ellie each grabbed a gunwhale. “Great.”

“Where’s Gerald?” Mom asked.

“Would you like some coffee before you head out?” Bill Williams smiled his broken bark smile. His face cracked into pieces that Margaret thought had always been there. The seams in his flesh took on more and more blackness as he got older and the earth became him. She knew his type. Bushed.

“Yeah,” Margaret said. “That would be great.”

 

 

Chapter Two

“Well that hit the spot,” Mom said. She rubbed Margaret’s back in rhythmic circles. It was a habit she’d had since her daughters were small. Only now that Margaret was grown did she realize it was a nervous habit. Just try to be civil. For mom. The reminder niggled at the back of her mind. She wondered if Ellie felt the same.

Gerald and his sons, Frank and Brian, huddled over a map in the corner of Bill Williams’ hut. Margaret couldn’t help feeling angry at them. Mom and she and Ellie belonged here. This was their world. Frank sat there like a colonial explorer, lording over the map like being able to read it was a sign of ownership.

“I figure three days in and three days back,” he said.

“What’s your destination?” Bill Williams asked. He sat himself nearer the women than to Frank and company. The only odd man out was Robert. Bobby slid in next to Margaret, like her body was the grounding rod in this crazy experiment. She stood, not because she didn’t want to sit with him, but because her mother’s hand was going to wear a hole through her skin in a minute.

“Drake Mine,” Frank said.

“Ahh,” the old man said. “Lot of history there. You’re not going in, though.”

It wasn’t a question. There was no reasonable excuse for enter the old mine shaft, as far as Bill Williams was concerned. Margaret agreed.

“I want to show them how far we’ve come in the last hundred years,” Frank laughed. He was a modern day miner. He wore a hard hat and coveralls to meet the safety requirements of his firm. Otherwise he had little to do with the men who’d died in the old black shafts dug into the granite rockface of the north. Copper, gold, diamond, uranium. The rock of the earth held all kind of riches, if you knew what you were looking for.

“You’re not going in,” Williams repeated.

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Margaret interjected.

Of course Frank wanted to go in. He wanted to put on his brave miner hat and go into the abandoned shafts and prove to Mom how great his command of the north really was. Brian, military medic with two tours in Afghanistan under his belt, was to play medic here, too. Gerald, the decrepit old man, thought the sun shone out of his sons’ asses. Frank said, “We’ll see.”

“Mr. Williams,’ Mom said.

“Yes, Mrs. Swain?“

“Ms. Churchill. Grace,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” old Bill said. He waited for her to speak and ignored the chatter from the men who didn’t belong. “Grace.”

“You said you hadn’t had anyone die or go missing in years.” Mom took a long swallow from her coffee mug. “Can you tell us what happened? I mean, we hear rumors in La Crosse, but—”

“Oh, you don’t want to hear that.” Bill busied himself pushing old newspapers into the chinks between the logs of his cabin. The crowd filled his living space, three on the bed, three at the table. Margaret floated, with Bill, filling in the spaces that weren’t taken up by the others. “That’s old news.”

“Old news is the best news,” Ellie said.

“Not here.” Bill Williams tore up more paper and stuffed it into the cracks. “Not when you’re going out. Stop in on your way back and we can talk about it.”

“It’s not just the girls who are scared,” Brian scoffed. “What’s going on, Frank? Where are you taking us?”

“Superstitious nonsense,” Frank said. “I told Maggie before we left that all of this was superstitious nonsense.”

“She’s not superstitious.” Margaret was silently grateful for Ellie’s defense. Too many times had she been written off as superstitious, paranoid, mentally unstable…

Mom jumped in, too. “Frank, dear. Watch the language.”

“Well what am I supposed to say at this point? I’m trying to take us on a family trip. To bond. To make us closer to one another. All I’ve met is resistance. I’m starting to think you all just don’t want me here!”

“That’s not it, Frank.” Mom slips between her daughter and her husband with a practiced skill. “It’s just different when you grow up here. You see things differently. Margaret sees things differently.”

“Always an excuse.” Frank spreads his thighs against his father and brother next to him. The three make a wall of white-man logic that will not be broken, not today. “Never a reason.”

“It’s okay, mom.” Margaret sits herself between Ellie and her mother. Nothing but a symbol of their resistance, but at least they aren’t alone. Robert flanks them, the reluctant warrior.

“Well, it’s not going to hurt anything to tell you, I suppose.” Bill’s eyes glinted over the rim of his coffee mug. He watched Frank and Brian carefully. “Folks have been going missing on Reyer Lake ever since the mine collapsed in the twenties. Maybe before that, too, but nobody talks about before.”

“Everywhere people go, people go missing,” Frank said. All logic, no brains, Margaret thought. “What makes Reyer any different?”

“Drake Mine, for one,” Bill said. To Margaret, his eyes, said more.

“Yeah, yeah,” Brian chipped in. “The collapse. We know.”

“Do you know how many men died in that collapse?”

“We’re all a little too old for ghost stories, Mr. Williams.”

“This ain’t a ghost story.” Bill Williams smiled, then. His teeth were surprisingly clean and white, given the state of the rest of him. Little sun-bleached bones in his mouth. “Seven men were down in that hole when the pilings caved in. Six of them died.”

“If it’s not a ghost story, what on earth does this have to do with our canoe trip, Williams?” Frank’s left knee bounced rapidly under his elbow. He leaned forward with his face in his hands, trying to look interested. Margaret could see his patience thinning as it often did with her and her ‘imagination.’

“One man survived. Charles Thomas. The cross shift found him more than a month later—”

“Good thing you’ve got a union, eh Frank?” Gerald elbowed his son in the ribs.

“He’s the one you have to worry about.”

“If he were still alive he’d be a hundred years old.” Frank’s exasperated sigh seemed to propel him to his feet. “Thanks for the coffee, Bill. But we should get going.”

“How did he survive so long in that hole?” Brian stood up with Frank. Gerald came with him like they were attached at the hip. “Didn’t he get hungry?”

“He’s been hungry ever since.” Margaret said it to herself more than anything, but Bill heard. He nodded slowly.

“What’s that, Maggie?” Frank’s voice took on an edge.

“You seem like a resourceful man,” Bill said to Brian. “I’m sure you can imagine what he had to do to survive.”

“Yeah, gross,” Frank said. “But that was eighty years ago. I doubt there are even bones down the old shaft anymore.”

“No bones, no. They took the bodies out and burned them after they found Charles Thomas,” Bill said. “And they took Thomas into the city to see a doctor. He was right as rain. Got a settlement, never had to work again.”

“Terrifying,” Frank said. “They cleaned up the mine shaft and the cross shift got to work. The end.”

“That they did,” Bill said. “But that wasn’t the end of it. Thomas kept coming back.”

“Why on earth would he come back after they paid him off?” Brian laughed. “Now that is crazy.”

“It’s true,” Robert said. “My grandpa worked at Drake for a while. He said Thomas wouldn’t go near the mine shaft, but they couldn’t get him to leave the camp. Unnerved everybody, knowing what had happened. Eventually they had to close the site because they couldn’t find anyone to work there.”

“Yup. Everybody packed up and went home,” Bill said. “Except Charles Thomas.”

“And he haunts the woods to this day.” Brian raised his arms above his head and made a goofy face.

“You asked, Brian.” Margaret’s own patience was worn through. “Don’t be a dick about it.”

“Margaret—“ Mom sounded tired.

“This is seriously what you’re worried about, Maggie?” Frank reeled on her, as if it was somehow her fault that Bill Williams had talked about Reyer Lake. “An old man wandering around the woods?”

“No,” Margaret snapped. “I’m worried that you morons are going to get yourselves killed trying to prove how clever you are.”

“We’re just here so mom doesn’t have to paddle back by herself once you get stuck down there,” Ellie said.

Robert’s usually serious face twitched with a smile. “You said you have satellite, right?”

“That I do, son.” Bill Williams cackled again. “Moose Lips Lodge has all the modern trappings. I even have a composting toilet.”

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Bill Williams chopped firewood. He swung his axe and piled his logs like a mechanical woodsman, perfectly rhythmic. He never misjudged a swing. Each log he split neatly into halves, then quarters, and fitted them together against the wall of the cabin like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Margaret admired the seamlessness of his movements. The man was bushed, but he knew how to live out here. It was going to be a long, cold winter. Bill didn’t waste any more time on them.

It took about an hour to unload the three canoes from the trucks and get them packed with all the gear. Frank circled around the boats, giving orders about what went where while Margaret, Ellie, and Robert ignored him. They took the majority of the gear in their larger white canoe. Frank and Brian fussed with their loads, made a big show of piecing everything together just so. They got the balance all wrong.

“You going to help your man, Mom?” Ellie stacked the tents behind the crosspiece, making a backrest for herself. “Or is this the only way you can get him to bathe?”

Gerald, hovered between the red canoes and looked impressed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t worry, Gerry,” Mom laughed. “The water is very refreshing this time of year.”

“Don’t encourage them, Grace.” Frank glared at Margaret with his infamous lack of humour.

“I didn’t say anything,” Margaret said. “I think you’ve done a fine job. Very neat.”

Frank’s lips tightened. He looked between Margaret and canoe as if trying to decide which one was lying to him. Then he grunted and started rearranging the gear. Warm satisfaction buzzed in Margaret’s head.

Margaret had never been able to pinpoint why she didn’t like Frank. He was a good man, he had a good job, and he was kind to her mother. He genuinely seemed to want them to be a family. But Margaret and Ellie had been too old when he entered their life for them to ever see him as a father. Or maybe this unyielding resentment was how people felt about their fathers. Margaret, admittedly, couldn’t remember her own beyond the emptiness of the place he used to be and the relief that came with it.

Still, something about Frank rankled her. She was never more aware of it than when he was with his brother and his father. Frank had been living in La Crosse for the last twenty years, but he was a city boy. He could blend in in town, well enough that even Margaret forgot he wasn’t a northerner sometimes. But when Gerald and Brian were around contempt bubbled to the surface and oozed out of Frank. Contempt of their town, their land, their people. To Margaret it stank like the city.

“Careful,” Robert said in her ear. “You’ll burn a hole in his head if you keep staring at him like that.”

“Might be an improvement,” Ellie said.

Margaret felt an overwhelming love for her sister and Robert, then, the only two people in her life who hadn’t let her down. Even Mom, whose incessant love for Frank had never stopped feeling like a betrayal to Margaret, couldn’t be counted on. “I don’t know what I would do without you two.”

“Twenty to life, probably,” Ellie said.

“Nah.” Robert wrapped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. “She’d be out early on good behavior.”

“I don’t know how you’ve known Mags for this long and can still say that with a straight face.”

“He’s pretty good at poker, too,” Margaret said.

Robert hummed into Margaret’s neck and swayed against her hips. “Daddy was a gamblin’ man.”

“If he starts singing country music I swear I’ll put us all in the drink.”

Robert looked over Ellie’s shoulder at the youngest Swain and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “If you want to go swimming, we could put you in Brian’s canoe.”

“Shut it, lover boy.”

Brian and Robert had never gotten along. Even when they were kids and Brian came to spend summers ‘in the bush’ with his big brother, Frank, Brian and Bobby had butted heads. Robert quietly refused to be impressed by Brian’s machismo. Brian not-so-quietly refused to believe Robert’s strong silent type act wasn’t a cover for cowardice. Since Brian signed up for service he’d gotten even more obnoxious about it. But Margaret knew Robert pushed his buttons on purpose.

“If you three aren’t going to help with the canoes why don’t you go lock up the trucks and give the keys to Williams,” Frank interrupted before another argument could erupt. “Looks like we’re keeping him waiting.”

Margaret noticed then that the chopping noise had stopped. Bill Williams stood next to his wood pile and leaned his bent frame against the handle of the axe. He watched the group with a distant look on his face, like he was seeing something else, some other time.

“Creep,” Ellie said.

It was a little creepy. But these guys who lived in the bush by themselves for so long sometimes forgot how to act around other people. Most of them weren’t all that great with people to begin with. Margaret figured Bill Williams was a harmless creep. He belonged here, growing grey and spindly like the trees around his cabin. He was probably looking forward to winter when the only intrusions upon his peace and quiet would be the cracking of the ice on Reyer and the howling of wolves.

Margaret said, “I’ll go.”

*************************************************************************************

That’s the end of Day 2, 3495 words down 46,505 to go! Stay tuned for more.

Book Review: Refuse by Jennifer Roush

Refuse by Jennifer Roush

I can honestly say that Jennifer Roush’s sci-fi novel Refuse is unlike anything I have ever read. I’m guessing this is going to be new to you, too. Now, don’t go running away screaming. This is not some experimental post-narrative fart sniffing BS. When I say new I mean…

 

I have never been inside a characters head quite like this before. And I like it.

 

Refuse is a serious book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And you can hear Roush’s voice oozing out of every word of every sentence. This book has style. Narrative style. A very distinct narrative style that I can only compare to the likes of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (both of whom Roush is nothing like, I just compare for the intensity of authorial voice).

 

It’s not going to be for everyone, I’ll say that right now.

 

Refuse is the story of Antoinette Foucault, a human resident on the asteroid Psyche (which is shared with two other alien species, the mysterious Grays and the powerful Amarians). Psyche is home to a Colony of the solar systems unwanted humans: emotional deviants who refuse to conform to Amarian rules. Antoinette is not a patient of the Colony, but she should be.

 

The band of misfits that propel this story are so bizarre it’s almost a thing of beauty. The inner workings of Antoinette’s mind as she works her way through the mysterious society of Psyche certainly are beautiful. Raw and course and sometimes ugly; but beautiful.

 

What I like best about Refuse beyond the sheer strangeness of the plot and characters, is Antoinette’s voice. The gritty, gross, sometimes absurd musings of a woman who is destined to destroy her home. She’s a deviant, surely. But in this world, so are we all. Sometimes Anty is so funny that we forget there is nothing funny about her situation, and that’s the beauty of this book.

 

I’m a big fan of SF that gets outside the box. Science fiction should be a world without boxes, but there’s a tradition at play that many writers struggle to break free from. Roush succeeds, and then some. She manages to play with ideas around species, individuality, gender, race, and sexuality so fluidly that you don’t realize much of what Antoinette is going through is a parallel to our own world. If you’re like me, you’ll be laughing too hard to realize that Refuse is a serious book.

 

And that’s why I love it.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Jennifer Roush is my friend and sometimes editor. My review is in no way coloured by this relationship. She’d probably beat me if I praised her for something that didn’t deserve praise. The fact is, I know a lot of very clever people, and I will be showcasing them (and others) here as often as I can. And I promise I will only review things I genuinely love, or genuinely hate, here. Because taste matters.

That said, if you have something you would like me to read and review (of yours or someone else’s) please let me know.